Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A fabulously staged Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from Opera Australia in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 14th November and in print 15th November 2018

As the only comedy among Wagner’s mature operas, the laughs don’t come thick and fast in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. But Wagner’s gargantuan work of more than 4 hours - with its elements of interpreted baggage – beats dryly in its celebration of the underdog and artistic tradition. 

The cast of Opera Australia's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
On the surface, Opera Australia’s imaginative new co-production by director Kasper Holten explores the themes with touching nobility. It’s also fabulously staged with swathes of spectacular regalia (sets by Mia Stensgaard, costumes by Anja Vang Kragh, lighting by Jesper Kongshaug). Holten, however, doesn’t simply offer the script without putting forward some kind of resistance. 

The opera’s first focus is on preparations for a rigorously regulated singing competition. The denigrating trophy is Eva, the daughter of a mastersinger. But Eva is in love with Walther, who needs to learn the rules fast. 

Walther’s mentor, Hans Sachs, recognises beauty in Walther’s passionate style. Sachs is the second focus whose ideologies become thrashed out in extended introspection. What Holten creates is a hybrid reading.

Act 1 packs a powerful Art Deco punch. Action is moved from the story’s Renaissance setting to a kind of elitist secret society club, an enormous vaultlike room resembling the innards of a grand organ. By Act 2’s fantastically giddy end, it’s all simply theatrical illusion, a drama Sachs appears the writer of.

Natalie Aroyan, Stefan Vinke and chorus, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
In its breathtaking Act 3 conclusion, Holten brilliantly jackknifes the nationalism that gushes in declarations of “Honour your German Masters” with Eva gesturing the last assault. No explanation necessary why Hitler could see what he wanted to see in it for propagandist uses.

Performances shone in all directions. Burnished and succulent baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky depicted Sachs superbly as an ambiguous sort not entirely comfortable in his soul-searching skin. 

Natalie Aroyan was deliciously radiant as Eva. When Stefan Vinke hit his stride, he was formidable as Walther. And the comic seasoning would’ve been stale without Warwick Fyfe’s sensational turn as the sneering object of ridicule, Beckmesser. Daniel Sumegi’s stolid Veit Pogner, Nicholas Jones’s happy-go-lucky David and Dominica Matthews’ perky Magdalene all impressed. 

And how welcome it was having Pietari Inkinen back, conducting with energy and careful support after two eloquently driven distant Melbourne Ring seasons.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 22nd November, 2018


Production Photos: Busby

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A superb night championing imaginative Aussie composition by the ANAM musicians in Celebrating Brett Dean at the Melbourne Recital Centre

How often do we get to hear an all-Aussie program of symphonic music on the concert stage? Unforgivably, rarer than hen’s teeth. But on Friday night, a deluxe treat consisting of four works by Australian composers - Richard Meale, Brett Dean, George Lentz and Lisa Illean - was offered to the public in a beautifully curated and compact concert at Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elizabeth Murdoch Hall. 

Brett Dean and the ANAM Orchestra
Acclaimed Australian composer and former artistic director of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), Brett Dean, was back in Melbourne to conduct the latest talent that oozes from the South Melbourne academy as well as guest players. Championing home-grown music, Dean brought something new to experience. In the end, it seemed that even the most conservative classical ears might easily give up Mozart and Beethoven, together with a shortlist of other concert-favoured names, and give themselves to music that challenges and charms our acoustic sensibilities. 

It wasn’t only an all-Aussie program that connected the works, all four on the list shared so much as far as orchestral imagination, exquisite sonic depth and impressionistic visions were concerned. To the ear, absent were formally structured patterns of melody and rhythm. This was a captivating and dissonant music that dispersed amorphously, as a puddle does, and infiltrated the air with a long afterglow.

The evening began with Clouds now and then, a short composition by the late Richard Meale. It was written in 1969 but spans time effortlessly with its extraordinary picture-building music based on a 17th century haiku by Matsua Basho. Fragility and the beauty and eeriness of nature at night characterise the work, creating a distant contemplative realm. Watching the large orchestra of more than 80 ANAM musicians focused on producing sounds of glorious delicacy in itself was rewarding. Percussion features large, including wonderful dark and hollowed croaking but the lightest brass playing, yielding the most sublime transparency, was particularly impressive.

Dean’s Australian premiere of his 23-minute song cycle, From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction), written with Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn, followed. Based on key moments in Hamlet and Ophelia’s fraught and oppressive relationship, its 7 parts give away something of the kind of atmosphere Dean established in his celebrated recent opera, Hamlet, commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera and premiered in 2017 before receiving its Australian premiere at this year’s Adelaide Festival. 

A thrilling and, at times, distant dynamism  in the orchestral writing - including some hair-raising metallic string playing - underpin vocals that deliver a range of expression from fluid lyricism through to haunting echoes and declamatory force.

Brett Dean, Lorina Gore and Topi Lehtipuu
Compelling, confident vocals from Australian soprano Lorina Gore and youthful warmth from Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu - backed by fine musicianship - blended in a thoroughly focused enactment. Gore, who sang the role of Ophelia in Adelaide, particularly stood out for her brilliant flexibility and clarity. Gore’s crazed flights and angular shifts came in a performance of great physicality that, altogether, exposed Ophelia’s disturbed psychological state. Lehtipuu depicted something of a chivalrous Hamlet, mildly authoritative but often needing more flesh on his golden tone. When Gore took leave of the stage in a trance-like state as the work came to a hushed expiratory conclusion, the feeling was that, in its entire breadth, Dean had brought poetic sound to Shakespeare’s verse in a gripping dramatic dream sequence. 

After interval, Lisa Illean’s Land’s End, composed in 2015, received its first Melbourne performance. Just over 10 minutes in length, the work’s sensitive connection to visual art is expressed in music of seductive and evocative beauty. Illean states in the program notes, “...the ensemble is conceived as one instrument which glows and breaths from the inside.” It seemed realised genuinely so in the reduced orchestra of around 20 players. Illean used the ocean surface as the framework for exploration and the resultant music was one to bask in. Free-moving, wind-blown and swaying in unexpected frequency, Land’s End played like a mediation for one lying horizontal on a lilo at sea in complete isolation without fear. 

The final piece for the evening was George Lentz’s Jerusalem (after Blake), composed between 2011-14 for orchestra and electronics and brought together around 80 musicians on stage and at the rear of the hall. Inspired by William Blake’s foreboding poetry and artwork, Lentz’s 25-minute composition draws on the apocalyptic elements and fall of man that Blake wrote about and questions how far or different our contemporary world is from it. It concludes with a reverent and eerie homage to the passengers of the ill-fated flight MH370 who never made contact to their love ones in gentle brass sounds played via mobile phone from the back of the hall.

Lentz’s extraordinarily orchestrated work is packed with colossal energy and was released in a rich sound-enveloped experience on Friday night in its Melbourne premiere one might easily ponder. After rising from distant foghorn-evoked brass and building with punctuated intensity with oriental gongs, strings begin a high-pitched screech before the brass fades back into the distance to make a bracing opening. 

The score makes multiple transformations that often seem to mimic sounds often ignored in our urban and industrial environment, like the sound of a train passing in the distance and the white noise of modernity. Especially remarkable is the way in which Lentz disguises his musical source and creates sounds that belie their origin - violins that whistle like woodwind and double basses that power the babble of far-off voices. Further along, the frenzied, theatrical and pockets of utmost delicacy are captured strikingly by Dean’s apparent enthusiasm for the work. Gratifyingly, Dean’s team of musicians never seemed to stray from playing with excellence, no doubt sharing the privilege of performing this gripping and thrillingly communicative composition. 

When the introduction to four vivid works from four of our county’s great modern composers was over, the only thing that felt missing was the sense that the concert platform can do so much more in exposing audiences to music that pours from Australian creative minds. I’m optimistic we will see this kind of experience again soon. 

Celebrating Brett Dean
Part of the Series: Australian National Academy of Music
Melbourne Recital Centre
9th November, 2018

Saturday, November 10, 2018

An emotional wave of love and loss in Opera Australia's Weimar-era La bohème in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, 9th November, 2018.

It’s only two years since director Gale Edwards’ original 2011 Weimar-era La bohème was seen in Melbourne. In its latest revival under Hugh Halliday’s polished direction, Opera Australia’s lavish investment in Puccini’s popular classic looks set to enamour new audiences again.

The cast of Opera Australia's La bohème, Act 2
Niggling issues remain in transferring Puccini’s story from 1890s Paris to 1930s Berlin but fade behind sympathetically drawn characters and imbedded contrasts. Complicated love and tragic loss, little pleasures and hedonistic excess, with hope versus despair, are juxtaposed skilfully. 

What matters most is the emotional wave that pours through the work. A cast of local and international leads propelled it marvellously on opening night. The chemistry burned affectingly between Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska’s dreamy but determined Mimì and Korean-born tenor Yosep Kang’s emotively pumped Rodolfo. 

Mimì’s final deathbed scene was all the more moving because you saw it coming from the start. Kovalevska portrayed Mimì’s last months convincingly, from the moment love blossoms and through its turns as death slowly approaches. Kovalevska’s creamy tone and alluring top notes blended in a superbly nuanced vocal interpretation.

Kang’s fearless and muscular tenor was pushed at the top but the voice reached perfected expression in the final act. I’m certain as many tears were shed for Kang’s heartbroken Rodolfo as for Mimì’s frozen smile in death.

Yosep Kang and Maija Kovalevska
Christopher Tonkin cruised early on in suave voice as Marcello and Jane Ede was as dazzling in voice as the silvery dress she cavorted in as a siren-seductive Musetta. Bohemian funsters Richard Anderson’s gentle-giant Colline and Christopher Hillier’s camp Schaunard were splendidly complete.

Designer Brian Thomson’s multipurpose and voluminous, polygonal turret intimately held Act’s 1’s shenanigans between friends and accidental meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo. Transformed into a bordello-cum-cabaret hall in Act 2, it’s an eye-popping display of exhibitionism and decadence. It seems everyone traipses through, oddly allowing entry to a clarion ragamuffin children’s chorus and drumming marching girls. Still, Julie Lynch’s costumes capture society’s breadth spectacularly. 

Conductor Pietro Rizzo’s vividly textured reading highlighted Orchestra Victoria’s stellar musicianship. Finished with a red-hot chorus, in its Weimar guise, La bohème still captures the timelessness of a classic.

La bohème 
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 24th November, 2018


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Monday, November 5, 2018

Lorelei struts its style in a pertinent and devastatingly entertaining world premiere by Victorian Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in in edited form in Melbourne's Herald Sun, 6th November, 2108.

No stone seems left unturned in Lorelei, a lush new work from Victorian Opera that explores righting wrongs and rewriting roles women were born to play. Conceived by soprano Ali McGregor, female artists and creatives feature prominently in its inventive look at the mythical siren Lorelei, who lured sailors to their death on the Rhine by her beauty.

Dimity Shepherd, Antoinette Halloran and Ali McGregor
Facilitated by director Sarah Giles’ thought-provoking staging, the results are as pertinent as they are devastatingly entertaining. Such is its strength that one might get the sense women never before have commanded so candid a platform - one of 75 coruscating minutes.

Without pussyfooting around, Casey Bennetto and Gillian Cosgriff’s witty and rhyming libretto is modern, audacious and en pointe. Coined an operatic cabaret, it sits comfily on a smorgasbord of musical styles whipped into an expressive and easy listening score by composer Julian Langdon. Conductor Phoebe Briggs did a sterling job on opening night in showing its energy, leading 12 musicians who produced a richness of texture belying their number.

Starting as three statuesque beauties, mezzo Dimity Shepherd and sopranos Antoinette Halloran and McGregor identify themselves as sirens honouring the memory of Lorelei. There’s no escape for the audience who learn they are their next victim. But the plucky trio have a change of heart as they come to realise it is society that shoehorned them into where they are.

Camaraderie is strong, as is the vocal mix between the plush-voiced, highly individualised trio.

Especially compelling is how the power, burden and abuse of their beauty are reflected in costume designer Marg Horwell’s wildly exaggerated haute couture. Movement is restricted in reams of fabric but is increased the more layers they shed as they question their position. And it couldn’t be coincidental that Horwell’s three-roomed linear set has an inkling of window prostitution to it in which each siren is constrained by its dimensions under Paul Jackson’s colourful lighting.

After all the sirens’ perceived progress as women is made, a reality check comes crashing through in a poignant finale. Redressed, but ever so slightly less than originally, it’s a reminder that a woman’s role is still far from rewritten.

Victorian Opera
Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse
Until 10th November, 2018


Production Photos: Pia Johnson 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

First steps into the baroque but a Gluck double bill from Melbourne's BK Opera falls short

Melbourne’s broad-scaled local opera scene has been pleasantly enriched by small amateur company BK Opera since its inception in 2016. For 2018, firebrand young artistic director Kate Millet has kept the little enterprise busy with a season boasting 4 productions, all of which have found an inventive angle on presenting opera. But, on Wednesday night, in a double bill comprising two of the more commonly performed of Gluck’s prodigious output, Millet’s risky first step into distant baroque fell short.

Louise Keast as and Alison Lemoh in
BK Opera's Orphée et Eurydice
First up, was an evocatively conceived Orphée et Eurydice, a work that premiered in 1762 to an Italian libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi and later adapted to a French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline. It looked to be going somewhere but finished thin on polish. A woolly Iphigénie en Tauride followed (a work that premiered 17 years later in 1779 to a libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard), and disappointingly dragged for most of its course. Taking two full-length operas and condensing them into a running time of one hour each wasn’t, it turned out, the wisest choice. 

Apart from Gluck’s name, common to both was little more than a questionable alteration that saw Orphée and Eurydice romantically involved as lesbians and friends Oreste and Pylade in Iphigénie en Tauride very obviously in a deeply affectionate gay relationship, not that the latter didn’t allude to suggestions of homoeroticism by some Greek writers. But, if doing this was to give contemporary relevance to open-minded audiences then why not dress it so? Nevertheless, a lot of work has gone into creating striking costumes for a seemingly ancient-Grecian look for the mythological subject of Orphée et Eurydice and, oddly, Greeks Oreste and Pylade dressed like Scottish highlanders in tartan kilts for Iphigénie en Tauride. 

A plasticised white floor and back wall allowing for minimal projections and titles formed the basic setting. A small rectangular podium was placed in the foreground to give some directorial variety and prominence to pertinent moments. The only other feature was a headless statue of Artemis carried out and placed at the rear at the beginning of Iphigénie en Tauride - referring to Oreste's order by Apollo to retrieve it from Tauris. Scenes were often too harshly lit when more brooding moods would have been expected, especially so in the bobbing dance of the Furies in Orphée et Eurydice when they initially refuse Orphée's entrance to the Underworld. They did, however, look foreboding as they taunted in their long black cloak, hoods and Carnevale masks.

Erin Towns, Finn Gilheany and Jonathon Rumsam in
BK Opera's Iphigénie en Tauride
Both pieces were sung in well-enunciated French but the extensive cuts did their damage to the poetic colouring of characters and their interactions. English titles chipped a little more off by way of neglectful proofreading. Musically, the exciting range from divine translucency to stormy thrust that characterises Gluck’s score rarely made itself apparent in the more weighty solo piano accompaniment by Pam Christie. James Penn’s conducting provided good pacing, if only the singers were more tightly reined. 

In its story of love, separation, grief and eventual acceptance of death, dark chocolatey mezzo-soprano Alison Lemoh and rich soprano Louise Keast carried their parts admirably as a sombre Orphée and pining Eurydice. Their stylised gentle movements added fluidity to the work as lovers, particularly when separated by a long red veil - a thoughtful touch - under the control of the Furies. Rada Tochalna looked the epitome of Amore and sang with a clear and radiant soprano but cast an overly suspicious eye over her domain. Overly strident singing by the small chorus of nymphs, shepherds and Furies tarnished their performance but, in Iphigénie en Tauridethe priestesses of Diana held it together beautifully. 

In what usually is a confrontational story embedded with courage, compassion and hope in the context of familial love and friendship, those elements rarely shone through effortlessly, however, in Iphigénie en Tauride. Not so in the case of fervent baritone Finn Gilheany, the standout of the night as an impressively gallant Oreste with his strongly shaped vocals and deeply entrenched characterisation. Marginal intensification of vocal colour would have lifted shadowy mezzo-soprano Erin Towns’ commanding Iphigénie as she maintained lovely composure. Andrew Alesi administered stiff authority as Thoas, King of Scythia, and Jonathon Rumsam’s vulnerability in the top of his voice hampered his subordinate Pylades. 

This time, it looked like BK Opera took on a task too great when it might have paid off better by concentrating on just one Gluck. Still, their small audience should be excited about another season ahead next year. 

Orphée et Eurydice / Iphigénie en Tauride
BK Opera
Studio 1, Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre
Until 4th November, 2018

Production Photos: Burke Photography

Monday, October 29, 2018

Musically hypnotic and imaginatively staged by LA Opera, proof there is an important place for Glass’ Satyagraha

It’s almost 40 years since Philip Glass’ Satyagraha premiered in 1980, a work commemorating the life of Mahatma Gandhi and commissioned by the city of Rotterdam. With its audacious mix of pulsing orchestral writing, ethereal vocal overlay and a libretto that conceptualises rather than elucidate his life, Satyagraha represents one of the late 20th century’s prime examples of composition that has given unique form to operatic style. 

Sean Panikkar as Gandhi with LA Opera Chorus
Currently on stage for the first time at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as part of the LA Opera 2018-19 season, the work comes in a powerfully sung, imaginative and ritualistic-like staging by English director Phelim McDermott. As an English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera co-production, it first premiered in London in 2007 and New York in 2008, revived in both cities in 2010 and 2011 respectively. 

'Satyagraha' was a term adopted by Mahatma Ghandi to describe his philosophy of non-violent resistance, meaning “truth force” in Sanskrit. The opera’s three acts depict episodes in his life, loosely based on Gandhi’s 21 years in South Africa. Each act is headed by an historical figure who all have a connection with Gandhi in reflecting the work’s central message of pacifism - the Russian novelist Tolstoy (Act 1), the Indian poet and activist Tagore (Act 2) and King, the American civil rights leader (Act 3). They preside high above the stage, in a small boxed niche, mostly inconspicuously, as part of associate director Julian Crouch’s inspired designs featuring an imposing rusted corrugated arced wall.

What gives the impression of being more an expressive sketch of Gandhi’s philosophy, both mythical and real aspects are integrated into the fabric. Constance De Jong’s libretto, adapted from the epic 700 verse Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita and which Gandhi knew and studied, maintains the Sanskrit text. When sung, little is given away apart from a sprinkling of projections across the curved wall. Even without fragments such as “Outstanding is he whose soul views in the selfsame way friends, comrades, enemies”, McDermott’s stylistic and gently-moving direction sends its calming waves of pacifism across the theatre. For those who accept its message, time becomes both irrelevant and uplifted.

J'Nai Bridges, Morris Robinson, Sean Panikkar and Erica Petrocelli 
As part of Crouch’s inspired designs, giant puppets rise out of what first seems to be a pile of garbage to recreate mythical figures Krishna and Arjuna, later animals and officials. A cityscape takes form, a field is planted and a human production line delivers the indispensable Indian Opinion. A paper drop that precedes the act of Indian citizen’s burning their identity cards in a central hole in the stage signifies Gandhi’s growing influence. Every scene vibrates with the music and draws one’s attention. The action on stage, as Glass intended, speaks for itself.

The power of Glass’s work lies in its ability to express his concept’s essence in the most reductive, resonating and mystical way. The score is limited to strings and woodwind, comprising simple repetitions that metamorphose into others and cast their hypnotic quality with ease. The fluid and meandering beauty achieved by conductor Grant Gershon only lacked an occasional desire for punctuated intensity but the players of the LA Opera Orchestra captivated with playing as precise and consistent as a Swiss watch. 

Leading us in the way of peace, Sean Panikkar becomes Ghandi incarnate. With a golden tenor both youthful and commanding, Sean Panikkar was a champion in imparting humility and charisma throughout. From discriminated immigrant to humble activist, Panikkar not only looks the part in presenting Gandhi’s transformation from the English suited lawyer to white Indian dhoti, but seemingly channels Gandhi’s spirit. In Panikkar’s breathtaking and passionate performance, Gandhi is elevated as a disciple to the echelon of gods, appropriately honouring the title Mahatma, meaning “venerable” and “high-souled”.

ean Panikkar as Gandhi with LA Opera Chorus
Surrounding Gandhi’s dominant presence, other figures are captured with subtlety and often no less impact. Bright and penetrating soprano So Young Park is magnificent as Gandhi’s secretary, Miss Schlesen, as is cavernous and colossal bass Morris Robinson as Indian co-worker Parsi Rustomji and muscular baritone Theo Hoffman as European co-worker Mr Kallenbach. Erica Petrocelli’s Mrs Alexander and J’Nai Bridges as Gandhi’s wife Kasturbai are gorgeous in voice, sharing a haunting duet highlight. A little increased power would lift plush-voiced mezzo-soprano Niru Liu’s Mrs Naidoo and mythical figures Krishna and Arjuna are strongly rendered by meaty bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell and warm baritone Michael J. Hawk. From the wild and snappy to the atmospheric and delicate threads of the score, the LA Opera Chorus articulate and harmonise wondrously.

In the final scene the walls part, leaving King poised precariously high at his lectern. He turns to Gandhi in a symbol of respect before Gandhi’s chants stab the soul with their searching repetitions. How can he appear so alone as a leader practising truth through peace? Shockingly, on a daily basis, our world seems empty of such leadership. Today and always, there needs to be a place for Gandhi and Glass’ Satyagraha

LA Opera 
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 11th November, 2018

Friday, October 26, 2018

Awakened by Opera Australia, Brian Howard's Metamorphosis proves its excellence in an extraordinary theatrical and inquiring experience

Far from being of the same ilk, I was undergoing my own developmental transformation when composer Brian Howard’s world premiere adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1913 novella, Metamorphosis, opened in Melbourne courtesy of Victorian State Opera in September, 1983. Now, 45 years later, Opera Australia has taken the work’s insightful fusion of disturbing drama and discordant soundscape and transformed it into an extraordinary and inquiring theatrical experience. The work, to a libretto by Steven Berkoff, traces the bizarre story of salesman Gregor Samsa’s nightmarish awakening to find himself metamorphosing into a beetle and his subsequent demise at the mercy of his family. For current OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, Metamorphosis holds a special place, no doubt, given the fact that he sang the lead role at its 1983 premiere.

Simon Lobelson as Gregor Samsa
It’s a physically and vocally highly demanding part that, in this impressive new production by director Tama Matheson, buff baritone Simon Lobelson invests incredible athleticism and sensitivity. In the painful adjustment Gregor makes during his withdrawal from a bourgeois world outside, Lobelson climbs across, scuttles about and takes flight across his cage-like room with a ghastly protrusion on his back that references the burden of work of business papers. Even when hanging upside down for minutes from an overhead light fitting, Lobelson maintains exhilarating power, balance, conviction and burnished quality of voice as one of six cast members who enact their characters impeccably.

Metamorphosis challenges your idea of opera, questions how far can you go in accepting change and crawls under your skin while it works its beguiling ways. Written when social democratic parties were on the rise in Europe, Kafka’s work can appear to comment on ideals that ironically resulted in alienated relationships, bureaucratic government order and increasingly sterile spaces. Via Lobelson’s remarkable performance, one is confronted with how usefulness turns to uselessness and ostracism, even when ‘love’ flickers around.

Taryn Fiebig, Adrian Tamburini, Julie Lea Goodwin and Christopher Hillier
Matheson intriguingly emphasises stunted social behaviour to characterise the family. Foundation-firm baritone Christopher Hillier heads a household clinging to respectability with a militaristic air and a cantankerous nature as the Father. Richly textured soprano Taryn Fiebig brilliantly tempers compassion and loss in the face of dilemma as the somewhat batty Mother. “You’ll awaken and see it’s a nasty dream”, she sings to a large doll in Gregor’s likeness, a prop all the family hold in their heart as a memory of what was. Bringing clarion bright vocal appeal, soprano Julie Lea Goodwin is Gregor’s amiable and cheery sister Greta, whose care turns to disgust. In one way or another, all go through their own transformation, none more so than Greta who blossoms into a sexually awakened young woman.

As the honoured Chief Clerk, who turns up to find out why Gregor has neglected to arrive at work, resonant and authoritative bass baritone Adrian Tamburini acts a treat in capturing the brusque and bumptious official in a spy-like, woodenly fashion. Precipitating Gregor’s final tragedy, the Samsas take in the Lodger, who broad-voiced Benjamin Rasheed effortlessly plays with pompous and punctilious distaste.

Howard’s score, one bereft of any melodious continuity or aria formation, begins with its challenges to the ear but it quickly sets the tone and allows the syllabic clarity of vocal lines to counterbalance it. Part of the score’s allure is its disquieting release, on which Howard works a mild comic patina that adds relief, then creates an affecting climax that comes close to an operatic trio before dishing it for a 180-degree turn towards frivolity. Screeching strings, warbling woodwinds, croaking brass and bass drum outbursts as part of beating percussion are alive in the score, adeptly managed by conductor Paul Fitzsimon and a small chamber orchestra sunken in the fore-stage. The result is time feeling irrelevant throughout its 105-minute duration with Matheson deserving just as much credit.

Simon Lobelson as Gregor and Julie Lea Goodwin as Greta
It’s hard to imagine Matheson’s direction being other than stitched to Howard’s score from the start. Matheson mixes various acting techniques that include quasi-mechanical movements and light-hearted choreographed vignettes into an equally exciting and shocking whole across its six scenes. Matheson makes exceptional use of space, giving the Merlyn Theatre great voluminous sense as part of set and costume designer Mark Thompson and John Rayment’s knockout artistic contribution.

Thompson’s set is an elaborately framed spatial marvel - a three-level industrial scaffolded structure incorporating stairs either side of the second-level caged room and flanked by ivory-coloured drapery on which projections of insects and spiders scatter. The Samsa home is evidently in the process of its own metamorphosis as period timber furniture vies with an industrial steel aesthetic around their staid, conservative demeanour. How much change is too much when it becomes a major test on our capabilities to adjust?

Not since Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits, which premiered in 2015, has Opera Australia presented Melbourne with either an Australian or chamber work that challenges audiences outside the grander repertoire. Signs are increasingly optimistic for future works like Metamorphosis that contribute greatly to opera’s richness and definition.

Opera Australia
Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse
Until 27th October, 2018

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Monday, October 22, 2018

Uninhibited, beautifully sung and marvellous on the eye, The Marriage of Figaro opens San Diego Opera's 54th season

After verging on a shutdown back in 2014, evidence of a revitalised and well-supported San Diego Opera continues, shown by the company’s 54th season opening on Saturday night with a sophisticated and enlightening production of Mozart and Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro. Premiering in 2016 at Lyric Opera of Kansas City and co-produced with Opera Philadelphia and Palm Beach Opera, director Stephen Lawless demonstrates exceptionally how this late 18th century opera buffa has no less pertinence today. Lawless enlivens the plot in an uninhibited, adult, smart-looking, vaguely period-placed setting. Altogether, it comes in sparkling, beautifully sung form.

John Moore as Count Almaviva and Caitlin Lynch as the Countess
Based on Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais’ play written in 1778, Mariage de Figaro, and controversial enough in its day for its portrayal of the servant class rising up to outsmart the aristocracy, it also brings into focus a feudal lord’s entitlement to bed female subordinates on their wedding night. Men in authority making sexual demands on women under their control? It’s hard not to notice a ring of #MeToo familiarity to it.

In Mozart and Da Ponte’s day-long account, Count Almaviva wants to exert his 'lord's right'. His servant Figaro’s bride-to-be, Susanna, is his target. An intriguing plot develops that draws in several others. Figaro’s illegitimacy turns up comic results but it’s in the Countess Almaviva, cheated on wife, that Lawless appears to highlight a small victory for women in the finale in what appears a depiction of her as Athena - amongst other things goddess of wisdom, war and justice. Forgiveness is bestowed but old ways need to change. Count Almaviva’s days seem glaringly numbered.

Sung in Italian with English surtitles in subtly balanced harmony and in combinations all the way up to a glowing octet, the cast delivered excellence in vocal standard. Smoky baritone John Moore swings between the dignified and lecherous faces of Count Almaviva with risqué, open-legged abandon, drawing  a grain of sympathy in a heartfelt and tenderly sung “Contessa perdono!" ("Countess, forgive me!"), in the closing moments.

Evan Hughes as Figaro and Sarah Shafer as Susanna
Gravelly bass-baritone Evan Hughes is resounding in voice as Figaro, able to articulate phrases with meaningfully sculptured ease and mine a wealth of riches from the lowest notes. Portraying a mix of flair, jealousy and cunning - a perfect compliment and match to Almaviva - Hughes’ Figaro amply lifts the vitality of the comedy, his shining moment coming as he steps into the audience’s frame as the house lights go up to mock women in a stinging “Aprite un po’quegli occhi” (“Open your eyes”).

Sharing excellent chemistry with both Hughes and Moore, Sarah Shafer’s bright and sweet soprano provided delicate touches to a winsome Susanna who turns on a blend of raunchiness and innocent flirtatiousness with cool charm. On opening night, in her role debut, the voice occasionally sagged in volume under the orchestra but by Act 4’s romantic aria Susanna sings to Almaviva while teasing Figaro, Shafer worked a splendid “Deh vieni, non tardar" ("Oh come, don't delay").

Backed by experience, plush and assured soprano Caitlin Lynch’s graceful Countess is a standout. In an exquisite interpretation of some of Mozart’s most poignant vocal writing, Lynch breathes the pain of Act 2’s lament concerning her husband’s infidelity, "Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro" ("Grant, love, some comfort"). Time stood still in Lynch’s heavily affecting Act 3 aria of loss, "Dove sono i bei momenti" ("Where are they, the beautiful moments").  A delightfully fluid duet followed with Shafer as the Countess dictates a letter to Susanna that sets up a tryst with the Count in "Sull'aria...che soave zeffiretto" ("On the breeze...What a gentle little zephyr"). Then, opening night’s most expressively calibrated beauty was to come in the Countess’ forgiveness in “Più docile io sono" ("I am more mild").

Susanne Mentzer, Ashraf Sewailiam, Evan Hughes and Sarah Shafer
In a pants role, mellifluous mezzo-soprano Emily Fons plays up to eye-popping disbelief young Cherubino’s randy rampage. Ashraf Sewailam’s impressively rich bass-baritone adds heft to Dr Bartolo and, although Susanne Mentzer was under the weather on opening night, her role of the Marcellina was sung comfortably and firmly side stage by soprano Julia Metzler. It even spiced up the comedy as Susanne delivered the recitatives and mimed her arias, especially so as the Marcellina reveals, even to her own startling discovery, that she is Figaro’s mother.

Leslie Travers’s set and period costume designs are marvellous on the eye. What starts as a continuous wall on which the Count’s pedigree is displayed in a sprawling family tree, a breaking apart and reimagining of an array of gorgeous settings around the Count’s palace unfold with remarkable beauty. An air of faded glory in driftwood-grey permeates the spaces and multiple panelled double doors provide copious views beyond, as well as ways for Lawless to provide entertaining entrances and exits. Thomas C. Hase’s lighting and cast shadows bring stunning relief to details in an overall visual concept that cleverly reflects the upheaval and revolution at hand.

Musically, conductor John Nelson facilitated a particularly attractive warmth to Mozart’s score while generally supporting the singers attentively. Notable demarcations in orchestral phrasing added lovely buoyancy and the San Diego Symphony took to their instruments in expert form.

It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, The Marriage of Figaro is a deceptively complex work in which something new is always unearthed, yet an amazingly approachable one that cannot but caress an opera lover with its irresistible music. If you’re able to get to San Diego by 28th October, you’ll be rewarded brilliantly with that experience.

The Marriage of Figaro
San Diego Opera
Civic Theatre
Until 28th October, 2018

Production Photos: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Desdemona is the star in Melbourne Opera's Australian premiere of Rossini's Otello: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, 19th October 2018.

We now know that Verdi’s Otello, which he based directly on Shakespeare’s play, was not the only operatic version. In an Australian premiere of an almost 202 year-old work, Melbourne Opera introduced another, by Rossini, based instead on later adaptations of Shakespeare.

Stephen Smith as Otello and Elena Xanthoudakis as Desdemona
Rossini expectedly delights to no end with his merry-go-round of gorgeous orchestration and melodies but the dramatic tension remains lukewarm.

Geoffrey Harris’ new English translation of Francesco Berio di Salsa’s libretto beamed largely on three fronts, in this case unnecessarily since the text was sung with superb clarity. Worse, the screens further emphasised the libretto’s laborious nature and detracted from Greg Carroll’s slick, black-marbled set design, Liliana Braumberger’s projections of Venetian vistas and Rhiannon Irving’s refined late 15th century costumes.

Not even legendary film director Bruce Beresford’s touch could muster seamless exciting action in the score’s long repetitions. Early in Act 2, when Rodrigo learns that Desdemona is already married to Otello, even she appeared exasperated by Rodrigo’s lengthy reiterations.

Further, little feels left but to relish the voices by halfway through its story of unfounded betrayal and conspiracy when all Otello and Desdemona independently wish for is to die. With radiant soprano Elena Xanthoudakis’ mellifluous beauty and quality trills capturing attention, it’s Desdemona who deserves the opera in her name. Dimity Shepherd, as her friend Emilia threaded boundless richness alongside her.

Scene from Act 1 of Melbourne Opera's Otello
The work boasts six tenors, of which Henry Choo brought the greatest vocal flexibility and persuasive recitatives to with his shadowy Iago. Vulnerabilities elsewhere persisted. In the title role, Stephen Smith looked the imposing part of the courageous Moor and possesses a voice of appealing muscularity but the top notes faltered. Similarly, all the finesse in Boyd Owen’s warm golden tones, as the fervent Rodrigo, faded in the punishing loftier region.

Under Greg Hocking’s command, the full pit unleashed the best music-making with the mighty crescendos as did the sizeable chorus.

It’s worth seeing for its rarity but if The Barber of Seville is the only other opera you’ve seen of Rossini’s output of around 40, you might agree with Beethoven when he told the composer, “Never try to write anything else but opera buffa”.

Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 27th October, 2018


Production Photos: Robbie Halls

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Drawn into a daunting realm of fearsome and chilling proportions, The Handmaid's Tale takes centre stage as part of the inaugural Yarra Valley Opera Festival

For Limelight Magazine, my review of Gertrude Opera's Australian premiere of Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale at the inaugural Yarra Valley Opera Festival.

Published online 15th October, 2018.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A superlative cast, music of finesse and a seamlessly beautiful staging in Victorian Opera's Pelléas et Mélisande

It took until 1977 for Pelléas and Mélisande, Claude Debussy’s sole operatic output that reached the stage in its premiere at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1902, to receive its first professional staging in Australia. That was in the heftier days of the state opera company, then known as Victorian State Opera under the late Richard Divall. With the now revived Victorian Opera in its 11th year, it’s welcome to see Debussy’s unique and poetically eloquent work presented to a new audience. On top of that, at the majestic Palais Theatre for its opening on Thursday night, it was refreshing to see that the audience included a generous percentile of young attendees half my age - and I haven’t even gone grey yet.

Angus Wood as Pelléas and Siobhan Stagg as Mélisande
Perhaps that was, in part, due to the drawing power of the company’s new associations with young blood from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM). Conductor and Artistic Director of Victorian Opera Richard Mills must be as proud as punch with the more than 60 ANAM pit musicians for they played the score’s seeping transparent soundscape with the utmost finesse, fine balance and even support - musically and artistically, a winning collaboration.

So too was the seamless beauty achieved by director Elizabeth Hill and her creative team in delivering production standards second-to-none. Set and costume designer Candice MacAllister’s clever, elegant and unfussy designs worked a treat in capturing the multiple scene shifts. Three moveable and mirrored bayed pods easily evoked the exterior and various rooms of the castle in the story’s mythical kingdom of Allemonde, working a treat in capturing every one of 15 of them over its 5 acts. Though not always literal in reflecting the duality of light and dark that resides in the storytelling, no one could doubt the power and indispensability of Joseph Mercurio’s stunning palettes of aqueous lighting to the overall effect. 

Despite lacking set arias, ensemble and melodious threads, the work’s approachability comes gently, like a slow-growing creeper waiting for spring to bloom while, advancing through its branches, a poison begins to take affect - a work that paints a picture that stretches well beyond its own canvas. 

Samuel Dundas as Golaud and Siobhan Stagg as Mélisande
Based on the 1892 play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the subject of Pelléas et Mélisande is a love triangle set in a vaguely Medieval world, somewhat like Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde which Debussy had seen in Bayreuth. Contrasts and opposites feature large - between man and woman, light and dark, blindness and shadow, the natural world and human nature, of truth and the unspoken as part of its infused symbolism. These contrasts play out within something of a domestic drama. Widowed older brother (Golaud), whose grandfather (King Arkel) has marriage plans already in place, marries young mysterious beauty (Mélisande). Younger half-brother (Pelléas) and said beauty fall in love. The dramatic course changes abruptly when Mélisande loses her wedding ring, Golaud unreasonably demands that she retrieve it in the dark of night and take Pelléas with her for protection. 

To bring life to the characters, Victorian Opera have assembled a superlative cast.  Pelléas and Mélisande carry the opera’s title but Golaud is a formidable hinge and a complexly depicted force. Baritone Samuel Dundas gave a brilliant interpretation of the character, exploring Golaud’s seemingly kind and harmless beginnings and increasing volatility and suspicion. Dundas, solid and sure in voice, brought excitement to every scene, especially at his rise in rage with his son Yniold - an endearing bright-voiced Sophia Wasley - in which, trying to get blood out of a stone, he uses his son as a tool in Act 3.

Seen more often on Berlin’s Deutsche Oper stage, it was a coup in having the exquisitely nuanced Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg back home to give a beguiling debut in the role of Mélisande. Stagg brought layers of colour to Mélisande’s character and vocal splendour to match. Stagg’s gestures captured the enigmatic, curious and playful to the tender, distant and despondent young woman who succumbs to a tragedy she fears unavoidable, the voice’s liquid class and affecting iridescence one hopes to see back in Melbourne again soon. 

Liane Keegan, David Parkin, Siobhan Stagg and Sophia Wasley

As her Pelléas, warm and resonant Australian tenor Angus Wood, who likewise has a growing international career, brought together a fine combination of manliness and innocence to the role. Together with Stagg, the pair built their affections gradually, with understanding and a slice of ambiguity that one always feels pervades the story. Their Act 4 encounter, when Mélisande lets her hair down from the tower for Pelléas to caress, provided not only a climax in their romantic discoveries and vocal current, but was deftly resolved with a long ribbon unfurling from the heights which Pelléas took hold of and splitting into three parts with each manipulated by a dancer.

David Parkin becomes more and more a marvellous interpreter and his deeply creviced and flinty bass was in its finest form as King Arkel. As the king’s supportive wife Geneviève, Liane Keegan’s plush and impactful vocals added broad support and fresh from the Herald Sun Aria Final, baritone Stephen Marsh gave a strong performance as the Physician in the final scene - a highlight of dramatic interplay as Mélisande takes her last breath. 

With just two performances, Victorian Opera’s Pelléas et Mélisande will all but disappear quickly but it’s seductive and ethereal quality will last long after as one to remember for those fortunate to experience it. 

Pelléas et Mélisande
Victorian Opera
Palais Theatre 
Until 13th October, 2001

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Soprano Rebecca Rashleigh soars with dedication and composure to win the Herald Sun Aria: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in edited form on 11th October, 2018.

The excitement and unpredictability of competition in the Herald Sun Aria Final ended on Tuesday night with Melbourne soprano Rebecca Rashleigh taking out a well-deserved first prize. Amongst a field of five finalists singing for cash prizes totalling $60,000, Rashleigh’s composure, dedication and unforced technique graced the Melbourne Recital Hall. And just as gracious came an acceptance speech that rattled emotions.

Rebecca Rashleigh making her acceptance speech, Herald Sun Aria Final
In a two-part evening, each finalist sang one aria in the first part and, in the same order, presented a second in part two. Judges Dobbs Franks, Tiffany Speight and Greg Hocking, who conducted the Melbourne Opera Orchestra as part of the prize’s new partnership, had the difficult task in selecting a winner. 

Rashleigh began with Liù’s plea to Calaf from Turandot, “Signore, ascolta!”, and invested it with eloquence and heartfelt meaning. In her second, Rashleigh rendered the delicacy and luminosity of “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka with angelic beauty and deep sincerity. With it came assured phrasing, dexterous filigree work and a scintillating top. Rashleigh now joins acclaimed winners that include Kiri Te Kanawa (1965), Daniel Sumegi (1987) and Nicole Car (2007).

Two other sopranos (Tessa Hayward and Ruth Blythman) and two baritones (Stephen Marsh and Michael Lampard) performed with notable commitment and class. 

Taking out the Dame Elizabeth Murdoch Prize, Hayward sang Gilda’s “Caro nome” from Rigoletto with especially affecting innocence and fine technique. Lampard’s utter conviction to his character was marvellous to witness in both the declamatory ferocity of Iago’s “Vanne; la tua meta gia vedo” from Verdi’s Otello and soulful embrace of the text in Wolfram’s "Song To the Evening Star" from Tannhäuser. Lampard’s thrilling spectrum earned him the inaugural Richard Divall Prize.

Marsh’s attractive, warm and amber toned baritone found greater depth in his second aria, Rodrigo’s noble “Per me giunto è il dì supremo” from Don Carlos. Of Blythman’s two arias, Elvira’s “Ernani involami” from Ernani was honoured with lashings of colour and a gripping cabaletta.

Hosting what is Australia’s oldest and most prestigious prize for emerging classical singers, Christopher Lawrence of ABC Classic FM provided light relief with entertaining introductions. As “the best-looking orchestra in the country”, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra played with sumptuous support.

Herald Sun Aria Final 2018
Melbourne Recital Centre 
9th October, 2018


Monday, October 8, 2018

Dark, oppressive and potent, Opera Parallèle presents Philip Glass' In the Penal Colony in Carmel by the Sea

On a weekend when it felt more like being bizarrely swamped in a poodle colony - the seaside town of Carmel was in the midst of its Annual Poodle Day - Philip Glass’ In the Penal Colony took the stage at the intimate Golden Bough Playhouse. For me, it was an experience of many firsts, including my first visit to the pretty town of Carmel, of Glass’ one-act chamber opera and of San Francisco-based Opera Parallèle who presented the work as part of the local Days and Nights Festival. 

The opera premiered in 2000 in Seattle and is based on Franz Kafka’s rather macabre and haunting short story, first published in 1919. Themes of justice and capital punishment, of cultural interference and ruthless determination against change are at its core. In director and concept designer Brian Staufenbiel’s interpretation, these themes resonate clearly in an oppressive, dark and claustrophobic world where there is no room for wrongdoing against the order. Questions are passively raised and answers aren’t so straightforward. 

Robert Orth as The Officer and Javier Abreu as The Visitor
The plot is simple, with a linear narrative to a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer that develops with little dramatic flux. An invited foreigner, The Visitor, arrives at a penal colony to witness the execution of The Prisoner by a torturous machine designed by the late Old Commander.  The Officer of the penal colony rigidly supports its use and hopes The Visitor will trumpet its benefits to the New Commander. But The Visitor is not swayed. The machine malfunctions in a sign that the old order is crumbling. 

Glass’ characteristic repeating and alternating rhythms fill the score and perform their hypnotic effect with eeriness and ease via a small string quintet to the right of the broad stage. Nicole Paiement conducted with passion, intensity and untiring precision, in itself a fascinating performance to watch as she brought bursts of mechanical beauty to her form and elicited unblemished playing from her musicians. 

The story encompasses both The Visitor and The Officer’s perspective and these two characters are the only sung roles. On this occasion, the physical characteristics of the two added contrast and weight to the vocal types that each are assigned. Dressed for the tropics in the time of the story’s early 20th century setting in a light-hued suit as The Visitor (costumes by Daniel Harvey), Javier Abreu’s distinguished tenor shone with a warmth and humanity that accompanied his sympathetic air. In contrast to Abreu’s younger appearance and shorter, stocky build, as The Officer, the older, towering figure of Robert Orth embodied the role superbly, bringing a somewhat faded heroic air and brawny pride with his deep and grainy baritone. Dressed in heavy military attire in a symbol of neither forgetting the homeland nor tradition but inappropriate for the tropical climate of its undisclosed setting, Orth’s ongoing measured and chilling delivery were pivotal in maintaining the darkness and tension in the work. 

In the silent role of The Prisoner, who never has a chance to defend himself and is unaware of his sentence, Michael Mohammed was convincing as the agonised and beaten down man. Incorporating the effective use of a stage revolve, Staufenbiel cleverly makes him the focus from the beginning. From under a ghostly veiled rock-like form, The Prisoner appears as if objectified. In the loyal service of The Officer as The Soldier, David Poznanter never held back on depicting the brutality of the regime. 

Staufenbiel spread and divided the action to great effect and his design concept responds to the gloomy nature of the piece with a sense of confinement achieved by high black walls. Fractured openings become a screen for projected images that include the outside world with its lush green setting as well as the Old Commander’s creepy ‘portrait’ and the execution contraption. A small quibble but the actual machine - a raised bed of rollers with side bracket to lower a harrow - looked the sinister part but operated rather clumsily. Kevin Landesman’s lighting was perfectly moody. 

As much as Glass’ music writhes, weeps and grinds magnificently for around 80 minutes, Wurlitzer’s libretto could do with some tightening and reduction. Nevertheless, there’s a peculiar time warp and a state of distance the work creates that is both potent and powerful and that doesn’t end even after The Visitor cuts short his stay and departs the island. Kudos to Opera Parallèle for giving it deserved resonance.

In the Penal Colony 
Golden Bough Playhouse, Carmel CA
Opera Parallèle 
Until 7th October, 2018

Production Photos: 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Within a forest of blood-red arches, a luxury cast stamp their mark on Verdi's Don Carlo at Los Angeles Opera

It felt humbling to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung aloud by a full house with orchestra for the opening of Los Angeles Opera’s 2018-19 season, making the immensity of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion feel like a small community hall. Then, Music Director and conductor James Conlon launched into what was to be a searing revival of Ian Judge’s 2006 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo - an epic work characterised by political and religious oppression, of suspicion, punishment and seeds of rebellion.

Scene from Act 2 of LA Opera's Don Carlo
Set during the reign of King Philip II and the Spanish Inquisition, that’s the framework for the story but, as opera does so well, romance and tragedy are in sharp relief. The ageing Philip has married Elizabeth, his son Carlo’s betrothed, and neither Carlo nor Elizabeth are happy. There’s something of an operatic bromance as well - a touching solidarity between Carlo and Philip’s confidante, Rodrigo, who supports Carlo’s political motivations in releasing the people of the occupied territory of Flanders from oppression under his father. 

When Plácido Domingo took the stage as Rodrigo on opening night, he looked a striking figure of a man half his almost 78 years of age. If he had underperformed, his adoring local audience would still likely offer adulation in truckloads but Domingo’s was a highly nuanced and commanding performance. It’s simply difficult not to remain aghast before this living legend of opera whose mystique infiltrates the stage. Domingo's former tenor voice may not burn with deep and vivid Verdian baritone colours but his intoxicating vocal engine ran smoothly, phrasing came with utter conviction and his strong acting skills showed a man who understands situational subtleties. Domingo’s final act aria, which he sings to the imprisoned Carlo - a warm and passionate tenor in Ramón Vargas - made a particularly poignant moment. With Vargas, a generous and unified military stride accompanied their duets.

Plácido Domingo as Rodrigo 
Vargas, together with the supple and attractive soprano of Ana María Martínez as Elizabeth, showed class and commitment in their roles but, intentional or not, their liaisons were under-baked and occasionally paled in comparison to the strong personalities around them. Vocally, it seemed they could have given more and I suspect they will as the season progresses because their final farewell was something entirely special as their voices beat achingly together in their farewell, “Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore", in which they pledge to meet in heaven.

The luxury casting of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II paid off with impressive results (Alexander Vinogradov takes over from 4th October). One of the production’s many highlights arrived immediately after interval, opening the first scene of Act 3, at dawn in the King’s study. Angled over his desk, Furlanetto’s was the most compelling performance I’ve seen of the role as he sang despairingly of the king's awareness that Elizabeth never loved him. But what followed will remain unforgettable. To have two deliciously contrasting bass singers together, Furlanetto as Philip II and Morris Robinson as the the blind Grand Inquisitor, was like having gravel and granite mixed and sculptured in divine proportion by God himself. In their duet, entwined with the formidable groaning bass in the pit, Church and State’s uneasy co-existence became dramatically illuminated by these two phenomenal figures.

Morris Robinson and Ferruccion Furlanetto
It was my first time to hear fabulous Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova, who powered large in a thrilling, fierce and fiery performance as Princess Eboli both in voice and gesture. Making her house debut, Smirnova’s opening aria “Nel giardin del bello", was startling and intelligent, sung as if she wanted be known the irony of the aria’s story of a Moorish King’s seduction of a veiled beauty, who turns out to be his wife. Later came an interpretation of mammoth depth and emotion to Act 3’s “O don fatale” in a knockout performance. Many, I’m certain, will be hoping to see her back at the house in a future season.

Through to the bottom of the cast list, a strong display of vocal talent came from members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program with Taylor Raven as Tebaldo, Joshua Wheeker as Count Lerma and Liv Redpath as the Celestial Voice. Further gifting the ear, a resonating swell of voices combined magnificently under Chorus Director Grant Gershon’s command, giving the processional Auto-da-fé scene tremendous grandeur - and it looked a menacing reminder as Christ on the Cross looked down in judgement - even though the scene’s realisation looked static.

Ramón Vargas as Carlo and Ana María Martínez as Elizabeth
Most, but not all, the action percolated with vision under revival director Louisa Muller but dotted stand-and-deliver performances detracted from this sensationally dark and brooding production. Whether inspired by the cut first act of Verdi’s revised long 5-act version or not, in which Elizabeth meets Carlo in the forest of Fontainebleau, John Gunter’s set cleverly features a forest of arches painted in blood red that provide a multitude of spatial arrangements. But apart from little more than the King’s desk, furnishings are non-existent, reducing action to mostly standing position. Black strikingly dominates Tim Goodchild’s sumptuous period costumes and Rick Fisher’s lighting added much to the intrigue.

In the pit, with the LA Opera orchestra sounding so wonderfully primed, conductor James Conlon demonstrated an eagerness to provide pronounced contrasts between the majestically thunderous and delicately threaded parts of the score, though often punctuating it at the expense of overall cohesive flow. Nonetheless, after a rather tepid first act, the dramatic heft was never in doubt and the singer’s were supported gloriously. 

In all but it’s puzzling ghost of Carlo V ending - and it fell noticeably flat on an audience seemingly unsure if it was over - Don Carlos looked and sounded the masterpiece it can be. A little more directorial vigour, however, would help to light it up superbly. 

Don Carlos 
Los Angeles Opera 
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 14th October, 2018.

Production Photos: Cory Weaver