Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Emma Matthews' world-class performance lights a torch for opera in The Space Between at Arts Centre Melbourne

Two years have passed since the premiere of composer and pianist Paul Grabowsky and librettist Steve Vizard’s Banquet of Secrets, a Victorian Opera commission I reviewed as “ intricate journey of emotional impact delivered with a sense of sleek operatic approachability.” In a sense, the same could be said for their latest collaboration in a work commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne, The Space Between. It’s a pleasure to have them back. So, too, it is to relish being up close to one of Australia’s all-time greatest and highly acclaimed sopranos, Emma Matthews. 

Emma Matthews in The Space Between
The Space Between, written with Matthews in the spotlight, is an inventive and absorbing 70-minute one-woman show in the form of an eclectic song cycle, assisted by Leticia Caceres’ vivid direction. Matthews sells it with excellence in nothing less than a world-class performance. Since taking on Head of Classical Voice and Opera Studies at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Matthews’ stage appearances are sadly rarer but that plush, lively and nurturing soprano sound you wish you could bottle hasn’t faltered. 

Beginning, dressed in a flouncy, flesh-toned period gown as the emotionally fraught and powerless Lucia from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Matthews launches into the cadenza of the opera’s terrifying “Mad Scene”, one she knows ever so well, with captivating virtuosity. When the final top note is taken over and electronically mimicked, so begins the journey with Matthews into an existential abyss. In the space between the notes there is so much more to contemplate in this powerful and personal exposition.

While not being completely biographical, the work explores memories and emotions as an opera singer in what is an ode to the operatic heroine. Vizard’s libretto is often poetic and searching while Matthews’ delivery is always intoxicating and dramatically driven. Questions and observations are at its core, reflected by such lines as “How can it be that I am here?”, “Where is love?”, “The conditions of life are utterly fragile.” and “I will live and keep on living”.  

If questions are elicited by the audience, there are no answers. If you’re lost, that’s fine as well because you’re still there in the moment, which Vizard makes reference to in the text. And Matthews is there tirelessly throughout, inviting her audience into her world and engaging with ease as she covers the stage and a range of emotion with unerring energetic flair. Pathos, heartbreak, anger and resilience are evident but their dark colours are also cleverly contrasted with wit and light-heartedness, as seen in a little music lesson in which Matthews animates her singing teacher espousing, “The music is before the note, between the note, around the note...”

Emma Matthews in The Space Between
Relying on piano, violin, cello, percussion, saxophone and recorded sound, the score is rich in variety, mood and creativity. Grabowsky, at piano to one side, has fashioned a complex, often eerie soundscape that rather beautifully bridges influences such as the atonal music of Alban Berg, the repetitive hypnotic rhythms of Phillip Glass, of folk, jazz and lounge music. Expertly mellow on saxophone, Jamie Oehlers makes occasional moves into Matthews’ space with the other musicians performing behind long lengths of translucent sheets. Roy Theaker’s violin work especially stood out. 

Vocal lines meet and depart from the music with exciting results and it’s challenges are comfortably realised. Most impressive is the way in which Matthews’ signature coloratura eloquence makes a leap into contemporary music-making territory. I’m confident I wouldn’t be alone in wishing back such operatic vocal splendour as more and more a part of modern composition.

The performance unfolds fluidly on set and costume designers Esther and Rebecca Hayes’ centrally placed oblique arrangement of steps, platform and ramp that provide ample scope for Matthews to utilise. Touching subtlety is achieved with Nick Schlieper’s superb lighting. 

It was a busy Wednesday evening at Arts Centre Melbourne. The Australian Ballet’s bold production of Spartacus danced across the stage of the enormous State Theatre. Jakop Ahlbom’s homage to the horror movie genre, Horror, would terrify audiences at the Playhouse Theatre. But at the smaller Fairfax Theatre, a little collaborative work lit a torch on the possibilities for the seductive sound of the operatic voice. And if Emma Matthews isn't nominated again for a Green Room Award, I'll make the assumption the panel were absent.

The Space Between
An Arts Centre Melbourne commision
Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 23rd September, 2018

Production Photos: Mark Gambino

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

An astonishing queen and a formidable rival burn the stage in a spectacular Roberto Devereux at San Francisco Opera

Via history, literature and art, Elizabeth I ranks as one of the most recognisable monarchs to reign over England and its dominions. In opera, she makes several appearances, most notably in Donizetti’s bel canto spectacular, Roberto Devereux, non-evident in the title but one of a trilogy of operas now referred to as “The Three Donizetti Queens” or “The Tudor Trilogy” that includes Anna Bolena and Maria StuardaLittle light filters through the plot that concerns Elizabeth’s obsession with the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, but in its musical language the exhilarating force of the bel canto style soars radiantly high. And it does so with monumental beauty in San Francisco Opera’s current season at the War Memorial Opera House.

Scene from San Francisco Opera's Roberto Devereux
Roberto Devereux is a multifaceted tragedy of personal desire, suspicion, betrayal and vengeance. English director Stephen Lawless’ angle brings a refreshing theatrical surprise and novelty to the stage without trivialising the gravitas that underlies the work. Making use of the melodic overture, which includes a tributary snippet of “God Save the Queen”, Lawless energises the work without delay as part of Benoît Dugardyn’s handsome set design - a sturdily built timber form mimicking London’s original Globe Theatre. This make-believe world of a stage within a stage concept serves well as a reminder that facts and truths easily evaporate in the service of artistic and dramatic license, as is the case here in Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano’s work. 

An elderly Elizabeth enters and a whirling unfurling of memories begin around her. Vitrines appear, containing herself as a child between her bickering parents Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Shakespeare pops out of a basket, a ballet sequence slots in delightfully and cut-outs of miniaturised battle ships cross the stage while surtitles give a little history lesson above. Lawless cleverly gives the immediate sense that we are firmly planted in Elizabeth’s domain and it’s from her perspective that we’ll be looking.

Sondra Radvanovsky (centre) as Elizabeth I
Even before making an impressive launch into her opening cavatina, star soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who sang the role in this Canadian Opera Company production in 2014, revealed just how engrossing and committed she is as an actor. While exuding imperiousness in her royal duties, it was in the personal distraction of Elizabeth’s obsession with Devereux, the physical fragility, fidgeting and the deeply engraved facial expressions that Radvanovsky brought unforgettable stature to her role. Most poignant, even heartbreaking, was the uncertainty and conflict Elizabeth encountered not as ruler, but as a woman. After having signed the execution order for the man she regrettably sent to his death, Elizabeth’s ‘performance’ was over. In a dressing-room-like setting, the regal attire hangs over the dresser and Elizabeth appears in her undergarments - wig-less, disoriented and unfulfilled as a woman. Then, before all, Radvanovsky delivered an astonishing showcase of vocal heights in the finale aria, “Vivi, ingrate.”

In this, the third of a six performance run, Radvanovsky glistened with supreme beauty in the top range while showing off her flexibility and striking steeliness. There were early issues getting the lower range to meat-up but Radvanovsky’s command of the immediate drama remained unwavering. With exciting trills and ornamentations, Radvanovsky sensibly exuded elegance rather than flamboyance, uncannily able to convey meaning as if rendered in naturally spoken text - a first rate performance!

Jamie Barton as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham
As the married Sara, Duchess of Nottingham and Elizabeth’s rival for Devereux’s affection, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was on fire all night and was every bit as splendid in voice as her queen. Every part of the voice burned formidably and every emotion released with it seemed both heartfelt and real. Getting carried away as you do, Barton’s vocal qualities resembled a sensational dessert of stewed richness blended with soft, velvety textures and warm caramel. You simply wanted more.

Against these two powerhouse performances, both of which were large in theatrical gesture, the men by no means lacked presence - for a start, Ingeborg Bernerth’s highly detailed period costumes provided distinguished authority. And the men’s more subdued acting style certainly assisted in drawing more attention to the psychological trajectory of the women. American tenor Russell Thomas’ did the job smartly and robustly in the title role, the smoothness, resonance and clarity of his voice imparting genuineness and intent. Of significance, Thomas played his part with great sensitivity and understanding in his various duets with Radvanovsky and Barton. But the best of Thomas’ performance came in his final aria, “Come uno spirto angelico...” when, behind the bars of his cell, he sang achingly of Devereux’ refusal to betray Sara. 

Russell Thomas as Roberto Devereux
Romanian-American baritone and Adler Fellow Andrew Manea, who replaced Artur Rucinski, gave a strong-looking performance as the Duke of Nottingham though the depth of vocal colours was limited. The promise in the voice came in the shocking closing first scene of Act 3. In Sara's apartments, Nottingham pushes her to the bed in what no doubt will result in her rape and a great rush of adrenaline charged the voice in Manea’s finest moment. In the smaller roles of Lord Cecil and Walter Raleigh, Adler Fellow colleagues Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell were greatly satisfying and coercive, the men’s chorus less so with their often smudgy singing. 

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra were in superb form and conductor Riccardo Frizza led a marvellously measured interpretation that elevated the passions, the tension and occasions of pomposity throughout while giving the singers ample space to amplify.

It’s taken almost 40 years for Roberto Devereux to return to the San Francisco Opera. For this masterful production just three performances remain. If you have any slight interest in opera, get yourself a ticket because I’d hate to think you’d have to wait another 40 years to see it on stage again.

Roberto Devereux 
San Francisco Opera 
War Memorial Opera House
Until 27th September, 2018

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Friday, September 7, 2018

From Gertrude Opera, Heggie's To Hell and Back resonates with its near claustrophobic experience of joyless life.

In just 40 minutes, within the intimate space of St Kilda’s Theatre Works, the ugly reality of spousal abuse was told in confronting and unsettling form on Wednesday evening. Presented by Gertrude Opera, American composer Jake Heggie’s one act opera, To Hell and Back, swings a powerful punch that leaves a lasting impression. Commissioned by San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Heggie’s work premiered in 2006 in Palo Alto, and received its Australian premiere courtesy of Gertrude Opera two years ago at the short-lived Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival. 

Desiree Frahn as Stephanie and Dimity Shepherd as Anne
As they did back then, two wonderful exponents of opera cut and carved a deeply expressive and harrowing account of male brutality - soprano Desiree Frahn as the young abused wife Stephanie and mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd as the mother-in-law Anne. Together, they share the stage in an affecting, rapidly paced and near claustrophobic experience of joyless life. 

Frahn channels the pain, the bruises and dilemma Stephanie suffers in domestic spousal abuse yet denies herself the label of victim. Stephanie ponders, “How does a girl of dreams become the Queen of Hell?” and Frahn gives her agonising life,  singing radiantly through a broad range full of emotiveness, notably fine top notes and a purity that demands one’s sympathy. 

Dimity Shepherd makes it appear effortless in portraying Anne with a hardiness and matter-of-factness melded with a supportive heart, her voice luscious of tone and striking in depth. These two artists captivated with the synergy they created, demonstrated in the work’s high proportion of duet. Pivotally, Gene Scheer’s tight libretto keeps the perpetrator out of sight, giving him neither the time of day nor a voice to commend. 

Desiree Frahn as Stephanie and Dimity Shepherd as Anne
Heggie wrote this 5-part fluidly moving work for period instruments, including harpsichord. In this reduced piano version with Brian Castles-Onion as music director, pianist Peter Baker plays with stridency but what felt lacking was the heavy-bearing bass and lushness of sound that would have intensified the hellish mood. 

Greg Carroll’s poignantly drawn direction makes occasional steps out of realism  into a stylistic rendering that verges on poised dance. On a raised square base, Peter Corrigan’s design features a white-high curtained ‘wall’ on three sides and little more than two simple chairs. Intended or not, in its scale, I had thoughts of a boxing ring come to mind - two women within it fighting their predicament with a man who is rupturing their lives. Simple spring frocks carrying bold floral designs draw on the women’s shared time gardening.

In the end it comes as a shock when Anne tells Stephanie never to call/see her again. It seems a cruel blow after what appeared to be a tenderness she gave her in support as a confidante. If we look back at the garden scene, however, we find a hint there when Anne talks of giving seeds space and roots room to grow. Released from torment, a message of hope for a brighter future unfolds. What’s left to address is educating society that no room exists for domestic violence.

To Hell and Back
Gertrude Opera 
Theatre Works, St Kilda
Until 9th October 

Production Photos: 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Terror delivered with unexpected overwhelming force in Melbourne Conservatorium of Music's Dialogues des Carmélites

Considering my deep appreciation of operatic performance in all its scales of presentation, it’s inexplicable why I hadn’t seen a staged opera presented by Melbourne University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music/Conservatorium of Music (MCM), that is, until Thursday night. When I learnt that a short 3-performance season of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites was to be staged at Abbotsford Convent, I wondered how this powerful and challenging mid-20th century work - loosely based on actual events during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century - might stand up to recent productions I’ve seen at Covent Garden and Washington National Opera. In what was a highly commendable and captivating performance, it was a solid reminder that scale bears no relationship to theatrical impact and that a fertile field of operatic talent is growing healthily in our midst. 
Benjamin Glover as the Father Confessor with ensemble

The swelling tension, the musical strength and vocal aptitude honoured the work with quite unexpected and overwhelming force in a story that culminates in the gruesome guillotining of 16 Carmelite nuns. Their sheltered lives in the service of God was as incomprehensible to the suspicious authorities as theirs was of the brutality inflicted by these persecutors. Dialogues des Carmélites highlights both the differences in perspective and premises for common beliefs which bind community and the horrific affects when compartmentalised beliefs heighten fear during times of civil unrest.

Professor of Creative Performing Arts at MCM, director Jane Davidson has mobilised a superb and well-cast outfit as part of a visceral staging that simmers marvellously through fluid scene changes along its dramatic journey. While Blanche de la Force is the story’s central figure, a young woman of the aristocracy whose fears lead her into joining the Carmelites to take refuge, Davidson elicits a clear sense of subtle individuality from the extensive list of principal and supporting roles, allowing for so many young voices to be heard. 

Matthew Adey’s simple period-based design, lit with brilliantly crafted suspense, plays a pivotal role. A ramp and catwalk-like platform cuts through part of the audience seating leading to the stage where we see a room of short depth backed by a panelled white wall, the centre of which opens to reveal action beyond. Action moves compellingly across the spaces using simple props with results that provide a highly evocative and immersive experience that incorporates many effective tableaux. A Gothic screen mounted on the central catwalk by arriving nuns sets a probing scene for Blanche’s first meeting in Act 1 with the elderly prioress Madame de Croissy, a space effectively used later to feel the urgency Blanche’s brother expresses to coerce her to flee with him.

The final scene in Act 3 was a phenomenal surprise and stands out for its chilling and enveloping suspicion as a huge contingent of citizens weave through and spy the audience. Then, frightening and spectacular screams of insult ring out upon the procession of doomed nuns before the “Salve Regina” pours out with religious defiance, divine vocal purity and utterly heartbreaking shock. The icy sliver of the guillotine falls, lights extinguish then brighten again and the vocal intensity is reduced one by one to the terrifying end. 
Teresa Ingrilli as Blanche and Amelia Wawrzon as Sister Constance

Sung to Poulenc’s own French libretto and surtitled in English, the voices shone radiantly. Soprano Teresa Ingrilli impressed with a gorgeously measured and notable performance that stirred vulnerability with grace as the young Blanche, her nuanced tonal shading and lovely use of vibrato colouring her character with depth. Amelia Wawrzon’s more glassy and brighter soprano was put to fine use as the affable but premonitory Sister Constance. In richly textured and expressive voice as the ailing prioress Madame de Croissy, Heather Fletcher deftly exposed the anguished soul beneath compassionate authority. Rebekah Luise was an unflinchingly secure and stern-faced Mother Marie and Alexandra Ioan’s vocal amber glow and confidence brought enigmatic beauty to new prioress Madame Lidoine.

Male roles feature less so but nonetheless were filled with quality. Tenor Thomas Harvey, as Blanche’s brother Chevalier de la Force, delivered warmth and lyricism with tenderness of heart. MCM Alumni Lucas de Jong was assured as Marquis de la Force and Benjamin Glover was admirable as the Father Confessor.

Of course, it’s Poulenc’s both compelling and unsettling musical signatures that structure and highlight the drama, including the funereal-like background, drummed militaristic interruptions and the strikes and slashes of emotion. For this, the sizeable orchestra of 20-plus young musicians played with dedicated expertise under conductor and MCM Head of Orchestral Studies Richard Davis. 

In front of an audience of around 200, a number a handful of local independent opera companies would be overjoyed to see, I couldn’t help but wonder if these developing artists realised the immensity of their achievement. For my plus-one and I, the effect was extraordinary. Britten’s comic chamber opera, Albert Herring, appears to be scheduled for March 2019 so I’m crossing my fingers I’ll be here. 

Dialogues des Carmélites 
Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University Melbourne 
Rosina Auditorium, Abbotsford Convent
Until 1st September 2018

Production Photos: Sarah Walker

Friday, August 10, 2018

An inventive hoot and sparkling Der Rosenkavalier from Melbourne Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 10th August and in print in edited form 14th August, 2018.

Melbourne Opera’s sparkling new production of Richard Strauss’ bittersweet comedy, Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), is an inventive hoot made special by the detail and life of Tama Matheson’s direction. Matheson mines the comic crutch and romantic heart of the work superbly.

Daniel Sumegi as Ochs and Anna Voshege as Sophie
The aristocratic Marschallin, in a loveless marriage, keeps a young lover, Octavian. Her cousin Ochs’ impending marriage to Sophie will secure his fortune. When Octavian, as the Rose Knight, presents the ‘customary’ silver rose to Sophie in a serendipitous encounter, the dominoes fall.

It turns out that a certain world leader with a bad blond hairdo and inflated ego slips into Strauss’ work with utmost ease as Baron Ochs. He shamelessly parades lechery, vulgarity, greed and self-entitlement through Strauss’ most popular work. Gratefully, through clever scheming, they don’t win over a love that blooms mutually.

Witty design inspired but unrestricted by its 1740s setting is a visual bonus — Christina Logan-Bell (sets), Lucy Wilkins (costumes) and Lucy Birkinshaw (lighting).

It could never have been pulled off so enthrallingly without four strong leads led by the comic charge of a marvellously interpreted Ochs by commanding bass Daniel Sumegi. Looking unrecognisable but convincing in form as our imbecile caricature, Sumegi’s deliciously throaty and meaty strength burst forth on opening night. It was a rare opportunity to see the bass voice own centre stage.

Anna Voshege, Lee Abrahmsen and Danielle Calder
Strauss’ melting melodic lines, however, were assigned to three surrounding sopranos. Lee Abrahmsen was refined and radiant as the Marschallin. Ruby rich in voice and gold stars for such deeply planted kisses, Danielle Calder wore the pants charmingly as Octavian and endeared in the disguise as the chambermaid, girl-as-boy-as-girl, “Mariandel”. Together with Anna Voshege, who brought a nightingale’s dulcet finery to Sophie, the opera’s famous trio received the poignancy it deserves.

Under conductor David Kram, the musical mojo took ravishing flight after a rickety Act 1 while talent and teamwork were abundant in supporting roles, chorus and in the pit. You could say that, in the end, it all came up trumps!

Der Rosenkavalier
Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 17th August 2018


Production Photos: courtesy of Melbourne Opera

Saturday, August 4, 2018

2108 Bayreuth Festival Roundup for Australia's Limelight Magazine

Reviews of four of the six operas on offer at the  Bayreuth Festival, 25th-28th July 2018.

Tristan und Isolde
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 

Published online at Limelight, 1st August, 2018

Bare resources, bold ideas and a job well done in BK Opera's Abduction: Herald Sun Review

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun in print in edited form, 20th July 2018.
Not published online at Herald Sun.

On arrival, you might be warmly greeted by a squeaky-clean moralising odd-bod asking if Satan has tried to come into your life today. Welcome to Abduction, director Kate Millett’s intriguing adaptation of Mozart’s exotic and musically arabesque singspiel, The Abduction from the Seraglio

Aleksander Laupmaa as Selim and Belinda Dalton as Costanze
Despite BK Opera’s barest of resources, Millett is never short of fresh ideas in her quest to reinforce opera with an edge. From Mozart’s “escape” opera - about four Europeans confined within the Pasha Selim’s harem in 16th century Turkey - Millett creates an unsettling claustrophobic tension that traps the audience within an oppressive evangelical siege using original extracts from notorious 1990s cult leaders David Koresh of Waco and Jonestown’s Jim Jones to drive it. 

Selim is the sermonising Chosen One, a creepy and cunning despot who Aleksander Laupmaa brilliantly embodies with chilling fervour, ruling his commune instilling the fear of God. His small group of followers - a lovely voiced chorus who sing three hymns into the score - are compliant, conservatively dressed and participate in trance-like numbness.

There are nicks here and there in the singing, gaps in the dramatisation and the second half could do with some trimming but the concept feels airtight and English and German text are delivered with potency.

Given the pressing demands of Mozart’s music, Belinda Dalton and April Foster acquitted themselves marvellously as the captives Costanze and Blonde. Dalton’s crisp and glassy tones rang out with confidence and freedom in Costanze’s taxing aria, “Martern aller Arten" ("Tortures of all kinds") and the scenes she shares with Laupmaa’s predatory Selim are the highlight.

Alison Lemoh as Mistress Osmin and April Foster as Blonde
Foster’s more smooth and plush sound added contrasting character as an increasingly defiant Blonde. Their boyfriends Belmonte (Stephen Carolane) and Pedrillo (Robin Czuchnowski) were less convincing with the chemistry unevenly ignited between the lovers. 

In an apt transposition of role, Selim’s torture-loving overseer, normally for bass, is given chocolatey richness by Alison Lemoh as the compound’s Mistress Osmin who paces about with an unspoken attraction for Blonde.

Musically, conductor James Penn provided engaging dynamics with tempo and fine piano accompaniment comes from Pam Christie. 

Without revealing the shocking finale, be it said that Millet’s dark approach wrests the compassion that transpires in Mozart’s generally lighthearted work. The results are captivating.

BK Opera 
Studio 1, Northcote Town Hall
Until 22nd July, 2018


Production Photos: BK Opera

Chemistry lacking in a food-for-thought Madame Butterfly on tour by Opera Australia: Herald Sun Review

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun in print in edited form, 18th July 2018.
Not published online at Herald Sun.

Sharon Zhai as Madame Butterfly
The fragility of hope and happiness is powerfully contrasted with hopelessness and sorrow in Puccini’s popular opera, Madame Butterfly. As a symbol between them, it could be said, resides Butterfly’s sheathed knife, eventually used in an act of hara-kiri that drives home the tragedy of betrayal and loss.

Opening Friday night, it’s 10 years since director John Bell’s food-for-thought production was first staged as part of Opera Australia’s touring arm across regional centres. In a perceptive though not uncommon update of the work to post WWII Japan during American occupation, Bell brings into focus the fraught pairing of smug self-entitlement and dominance with vulnerability and desperation. 

Aided by designer Jennie Tate’s liberally concocted aesthetics and subtle cultural blending – performed on and around a floating platform backed by sliding doors - with Matt Scott’s impressive subtle lighting, every scene felt firmly supported. 

Sung in English, however, the fluidity of line felt compromised. Amongst principal roles doubled during the tour, Sharon Zhai depicted with quaint confidence the underage Japanese bride whose family has fallen on hard times. Indeed, so now has Nagasaki. Puccini could never have imagined the extent to which his ‘verismo’ work could aptly sit some 40 years after its premiere in 1904. That no obvious reference is made to Nagasaki’s atomic bombing seemed a lost opportunity. 

M. Reardon, A. Yun and A. Moran
While delightfully sweet and pure of tone, the extremities of Zhai’s range suffered. Often fluttering about to distraction, Butterfly loses human heart to gestural ineffectiveness.  Her love, the reckless American naval lieutenant Pinkerton, who fully intends to marry a ‘real” American bride, was warmly interpreted by Matthew Reardon but the shared chemistry with Zhai was lukewarm. 

Anna Yun imbued gravitas in her unwavering loyalty as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki and Michael Petruccelli excelled in both voice and comic style as the marriage broker Goro. Andrew Moran brought distinction to the diplomatic and rational US consul Sharpless while Steven Gallop’s interjection as the incensed Bonze showed how experience informs. 

Despite a lean orchestra, conductor Warwick Stengards led with a thoughtfully paced and textured rendition. And how delightfully integrated the children’s chorus drawn from the local community were, front of stage, giving the "Humming Chorus" sweet innocence!

Madame Butterfly 
Opera Australia Regional Tour, Victoria
Until 1st September 


Production Photos: Jeff Busby 

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