Wednesday, April 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Monday, April 23, 2018

Raucous partying and well-surveyed emotions go head to head in Opera San Jose's vividly directed La traviata

When the curtain went up on Opera San Jose’s current revival of La traviata, Giuseppe Verdi’s most widely staged work, you knew you were in for an interesting encounter with a woman the demimonde held claim to. Surrounding the jubilant, white-laced gowned Violetta, looking more bride-to-be, however, than an eye-turning courtesan, a plush huddle of women in shades of purple-to-mauve and men in black tuxedos began a raucous start to proceedings that splashed the foreground with wild background life and screams of celebration. It could have swamped poor Violetta’s limelight - it did at times, again later at Violetta’s friend Flora’s party where the fetishes come out - but in this always vividly directed production by Shawna Lucey, when inner emotions were surveyed, they were peeled back to give glaring clarity.

Scene from Act 1, La traviata, Opera San Jose
Lucey brings forward Verdi’s original early 19th century Paris setting to the period immediately following the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. Erik Flatmo’s appealing and adaptable set - an obliquely orientated spit-level room featuring a large rear tracery window with a view to the Eiffel Tower, becoming Violetta’s country villa, cosy with fireplace and a view to a hedged yard for Act 2, to Flora’s debauched gambling den and, finally, Violetta’s spare, low-lit bedroom in Act 3 - provided an effective platform for both the many entrances and exits and carefully thought separation of action. Deciphering the details for most modern eyes, it was neither here no there but, in a telling manner, a soaring erect monument functioned as much as symbol of engineering progress as it would seem for a male-dominant society in which women were objectified.

Elizabeth Poindexter’s costumes were appropriately elegant and Pamila Z. Gray captured a gorgeous realism in her lighting design. When the late afternoon light gradually threw a copper glow on the drawing room of Violetta’s villa, you would’ve sworn the sun itself was backstage - part of an overall scheme that formed a seductive context for Violetta’s ultimate looming death.

Details such as this compliment Lucey’s fully laden storytelling that moved along with a cinematic quality where no angle seemed left unresolved. The woman who entered to find Violetta and Alfredo in their first fervent embrace and later suggested gossiping to the partygoers and the silent conversation that continued between Dr Grevil and Annina after he left Violetta’s bedside provided excitement to the eye in Lucey’s string of active ideas. 

Pene Pati as Alfredo and Amanda Kingston as Violetta
There were issues, perhaps due to Michelle Klaers D’Alo’s often over-choreographed work with the Opera San Jose chorus who were certainly fleet of foot and demonstrated just how well they can act but their early resounding singing fell into disarray by the time they sang Act 2's song of the handsome matador from Biscay.

Fortunately, the chemistry between lush-voiced Amanda Kingston’s Violetta and Pene Pati’s searing Alfredo was brought together poignantly - both sensitive actors, both compelling singers and both secure in sealing their passions with long extended kisses.

Kingston effortlessly brought out a cachet of complexly drawn richness in Violetta’s character - her indelible vivaciousness, an initial mocking of the man she would seek love’s solace in and the tender and romantic side it later brought out, the grief at giving up Alfredo and, in suffering, the desperation to live. Kingston’s vocal adeptness to harness both the vitality and gravitas of the role was evident. A meaty lower register impressed as much as the purity and ring of the top of the voice and her accomplished ornamentations greatly appealed in this, the third performance of the run. If the voice required that little bit more attention, it was in the whispering lighter side. It wasn’t as if it couldn’t be achieved without loss of emotional depth because that’s exactly what Kingston added in a final act she made both immediate and heartbreaking.

A big man with a big, warm thrilling sound who injects brilliant life into every note, New Zealand tenor Pene Pati appeared to relish every turn of events in his performance as the passionate Alfredo (Dane Suarez alternates in the role). Diction-clear, and delivering phrases with confident momentum, Pati, like Kingston, easily mined the potential in his character with a youthful ardour to accompany it and making a perfect contrast to Violetta’s worldly assuredness.

Amanda Kingston as Violetta and Malcolm MacKenzie as Giorgio Germont
When Alfredo’s staunch patriarchal father, Giorgio Germont, arrived at Violetta’s country villa in Act 2, he came in resonant and smoky baritone form with the well-cast Malcolm MacKenzie (Trevor Neal alternates in the role). Once Violetta and Giorgio’s initial restless orbit about the room was done, the pair settled into a thoroughly engaging musical discourse in which the voices, drama and action entwined poignantly. MacKenzie coloured Giorgio with a calculating, calm and starched presence in front of a woman he saw unfit for his son, authoritative in front of his son and genuinely remorseful for his demands in front of both in the final scene. 

Broad-ranged gravelly bass Philip Skinner projected voluminously as an imposing Baron Douphol, at times overwhelming his colleagues but dignified in stature until the he lifts a brutal hand to Violetta. Handsome and warm baritone Babatunde Akinboboye took to the task with complete ease on all fours in doggy fashion to satisfy Flora’s masochistic tendencies as Marchese D’Obigny. As Flora, mezzo-soprano Christina Pezzarossi sang without the consistent radiance you would expect to match a persona she otherwise filled with fun and frivolity and Mason Gates took a little time to settle before his muscular tenor took flight as Gastone. Both Erin O’Meally and Colin Ramsey supported the drama sympathetically in fine voice as Violetta’s young dependable maid Annina and her attentive doctor, Dr Grenvil respectively. 

But as passionately interpreted overall as it was, it wasn’t all roses musically. Verdi’s  stringed introspective overture moved along languidly, the notes clear but requiring a deeper intensity. The tempi often shifted abruptly making its demands on the artists. Most luminous, however, was conductor Joseph Marcheso’s ability to raise the full orchestral forces with surging energy and expression when the score demanded and where the players of the San Jose Opera Orchestra made their greatest impression. 

La traviata 
Opera San Jose
California Theatre
Until 29th April 2018

Production Photos: courtesy of Opera San Jose

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Moshinsky's lavish La traviata for Opera Australia is brought to vivid life once again in Melbourne

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun in edited form, 19th April and online 23rd April 2018.

Since 1994, Elijah Moshinsky’s lavish production of Verdi’s La traviata for Opera Australia has provided a highly detailed view into famed courtesan Violetta Valéry’s 19th century world. From Violetta’s sumptuously appointed salon to the courtyard outside her country villa, onto the Moorish exoticism at her friend Flora’s party and, finally, to the spare and faded glory of her surrounds as she desperately hopes to live, Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter Hall’s intricate costumes are a masterpiece of stage design.

Scene from Act 1, La traviata, Opera Australia
Back in Melbourne to open the autumn season, it was brought to vivid life by a strong lead cast, depth of character in supporting roles and a wonderfully rich chorus under revival director Constantine Costi.

Nothing feels superfluous in Verdi and librettist Piave’s taut dramatic structure and story that appeals just as much today to our own sense of moral justice as it did to the ‘respectable’ classes of its day.

Struck by love in partying pleasure and swilling champagne from the bottle like there’s no tomorrow as she defies the tuberculosis that weakens her, American soprano Corinne Winters worked the festivities vivaciously in creamy-rich voice as Violetta. A few nervous trips in timing impeded initial ownership of the role but, stirred by emotion and pondering if Alfredo could be the one when left alone singing “È strano! ... Ah, fors'è lui” (“Ah, perhaps he is the one"), Winters bloomed marvellously. It was the emotional emphatic bursts on single phrases that genuinely crowned her performance.

Yosep Kang’s youthful Alfredo instantly impressed with his ripe, resonant and passionately driven tenor. Together with Winters, the vocal blend entwined affectingly, most poignantly in Act 3’s duet of hopeless optimism. If only the eyes met more often and the kisses planted more tenderly to cement the chemistry overall.

Corinne Winters as Violetta and José Carbó Giorgio Germont
But the central conflict that upheaves momentary tranquility in Act 2 with the arrival of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, came with sublime dramatic interplay between Winters, Kang and baritone José Carbó in brilliant authoritative form as the stern and distinguished father.

Dominica Matthews made a striking show as a bubbly, laissez-faire Flora. Notably robust performances also drove home the context of male dominance with John Longmuir as Gastone, Adrian Tamburini as Barone Douphol and Tom Hamilton as Marquis d'Obigny.
Conductor Carlo Montanaro exerted sympathetic and moody breadth to the score, rightfully applauding in gesture at curtain call the threadbare weeping string playing that contrasted with the larger orchestral lushness of Orchestra Victoria.

How much longer Moshinsky’s iconic La traviata will adorn the company’s future is unknown but when it’s gone, it will be worthy for classification on an historic register.

La traviata 
Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 11th May, 2018


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Milking the kookiness but a little more polish wouldn't go astray in Lyric Opera of Melbourne's Les mamelles de Tirésias: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun Monday, 9th April 2018 and in print Tuesdday, 10th April.

Kate Macfarlane as Therese
Opera doesn’t get any kookier than Poulenc’s surrealistic escapade, Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias). It’s exactly the kind of rarity that’s right up Lyric Opera’s alley and one that includes lots of innocuous fun with balloons.

Therese (Kate Macfarlane), fed up with domesticity, marvels at the magical loosening of her mammaries (balloons of course), grows a moustache and, as Tiresias, adventures out to conquer a male-dominated world. First, she dresses her Husband (Raphael Wong) in female clothes. Then, he wills himself to have babies of his own — over 40,000 in a single day.

The absurdity has a message — sung commandingly in a prologue by Stephen Marsh as dapper theatre director — to “listen to the lessons of war and make babies like never before”. Based on Apollinaire’s 1917 play, it was a call to repopulate France after WWI. Poulenc’s 1940s score — a one-hour perky mix of cabaret, burlesque and operetta — is a reaction of sorts to WWII.

Adopting Britten’s version for two pianos, Simon Bruckard and Peter Toohey justly proved drag diva Dolly Diamond’s hilarious introductory words as having “some of the best fingering in the business”. Dolly’s a hard act to follow.

From director Cathy Hunt came a mostly bubbly encounter, supposedly reimagined in the ‘greed is good’ 1980s and framed by Robert Smith’s effective set featuring an outlined Keith Haring-like house. Motifs on Lucy Wilkins’ zany costumes from artists like Chagall, Picasso, Klee and Haring, however, do better in deeming time mostly irrelevant.

Ensemble artists Alastair Cooper-Golec, Sabrina Surace and Timothy Daly
What struck more were the balloons — the blue and red — filled with (a poor joke coming) the helium and she-lium in us all and, by story’s end, a colourful mix of balloons that reflect sexual and family diversity.

Sung in English, the cast’s ability to maintain the musical pace, comedy and cabaret appeal gets tested heavily with some scenes lighting up the audience on opening night while others fell flat.

Macfarlane’s fluid acting and sparkling top notes sailed but her Therese needed greater gutsiness. Robust top to bottom, Wong made a fine show of the Husband’s transformation into baby-raising and between acts the pair share a mood-changing highlight as they dance a dream of being back together. The remaining ensemble of seven joined in enthusiastically as various other characters but shone better as a chorus of citizens and as melodic bonneted babes.

Though best not to be taken too seriously, a little more polish wouldn’t go astray.

Les mamelles de Tirésias
Lyric Opera of Melbourne
Chapel off Chapel
Until March 14 2018

Production Photos: courtesy of Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wintery Paris settles enchantingly on Sydney Harbour for Handa and Opera Australia's La bohème

La bohème on Sydney Harbour, Act 3 scene
With bright ideas, solid voices and drama sewn with pathos that doesn’t let a bag of spectacular effects overwhelm it, the outdoor experience of Opera Australia’s La bohème makes for a memorable and enchanting night out on Sydney Harbour.  Generously backed by Dr Haruhisa Handa and his International Foundation for Arts and Culture - with the NSW government well onboard an annual event that has lured more than 300,000 attendees over its now seventh season - the stakes are high to deliver a thrilling night that ticks umpteen boxes for a broad cross-sectional audience. It would seem that the magic formula has well and truly proven itself.

It’s an immense and superbly-organised affair that shares the art form with a mix of passion and unapologetic splendour and one that warmly connects first-timers and returnees alike. And if money’s to be made, we’ll see it trickle with the spirit of generosity through all levels of the art form. Correct?

At the core of La bohème is passionate new love, hope against the odds and the unquestioning generosity of heart amongst friends. In Andy Morton’s first time in the director’s chair - after assisting on five previous harbour spectaculars - the work gleams with overall integrity, fortunately capturing the intimacy and strain between the leading lovers when and where it demands. In this case, it’s the 1960s. Morton updates Puccini’s four-tableaux acts set in Paris’ 1830s Latin Quarter to more than a century later in the same district during the turbulence of the student riots, specifically, 1968.

The association doesn’t really fire up until Act 3 when a debris-strewn street, an upturned vehicle burns to one side and police presence describe the sombre mood. But Dan Potra’s set and costume designs, nevertheless, create an evocative wide-angled picture from start to finish for the central storytelling in front of the long length of harbour-side seating stands for the audience facing it.

The bohemians’ raised and over-sized garret, on which either side tall chimney stacks blow off smoke, is the centrepiece of Potra’s work. A broad sloping cobblestoned street lit by lantern streetlights wraps around it. High above, a large angled skylight becomes a screen for a variety of projections by video designer Marco Devetak, acting both as a window to sensational views of Paris, including its iconic Eiffel Tower, as well as a canvas for lots of novel animations and graphics. Altogether, not forgetting Matthew Marshall’s magnificent ambient lighting design, it’s an impressive construction that provides multiple entry points for the comings and goings and one in which interior and exterior action is integrated cleverly though, at times, busily. 

Julie Lea Goodwin as Musetta and John Bolton Wood as Alcindoro
For Act 2, the garret is transformed into Cafe Momus with an array of little tables. It’s a quaint setting but the main action is played out clumsily behind an incongruous trestle table on the street below. Then, in Act 3, the garret becomes a series of windowed cubicles advertising the women within, as the brothel "La Maison Délice", a well-resolved setting that depicts the seediness of life at the edge and a perfect frame for Mimì and Rodolfo’s unsettled love and the standoff between Marcello and on-off girlfriend Musetta. And, of course, with the 1960s comes a vibrant and balanced display of costumes - short coats, fur collars and high boots.

In Act 2’s opening bustling street scene, for which the Opera Australia Chorus add so much vitality in voice and movement, acrobats, stilt-walkers and a hula hoop performer enter the mix and Parpignol (Simon Gilkes) descends in a giant pot carried by a bunch of balloons (inconspicuously transported by crane). And when it snows on a balmy Sydney evening, it feels completely natural. The fireworks not so but they’ve become such a part of the event that the complaints would be rampant should they be dropped. On Easter Sunday night, at the end of Act 2, they fizzled rather quickly.

The singing, on the other hand, made a lasting impact and owes a great deal of thanks to the strength and clarity of Tony David Cray’s sound design. So too for the unseen Opera Australia Orchestra under the fine leadership of conductor Brian Castles-Onion who brought notable sensitivity to the music and attentive support for the singers. Certainly not an easy task hidden out of sight but the timing of singers and under-stage orchestra remained remarkably on track.

Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska, with her engaging and nuanced portrayal of Mimì, and Australian tenor Paul O’Neill, as a sensitively drawn Rodolfo, made a thoroughly convincing picture of love wrought by the reality of personality and circumstance (the pair alternate over the four-week season with Romanian Iulia Maria Dan and South Korean Ho-Yoon Chung who opened the season on 23rd March).*

Christopher Hillier and Richard Anderson
In Act 1’s burst of momentum we meet Rodolfo, a poet, and his friends Marcello the painter (Christopher Tonkin, alternating with Samuel Dundas), Colline the philosopher (Richard Anderson) and Schaunard the musician (Christopher Hillier). Across the raised bohemians’ garret, it wasn't easy grabbing onto the intricacy of what’s being sung and you sometimes feel left behind but the moment Mimì knocked at the door after Rodolfo’s friends have left, she a stranger asking for a light to her candle, the space was given room to breath marvellously. Once the hands meet, across the couch, O’Neill began with a heartfelt "Che gelida manina" ("What a cold little hand") that exposed a deep furnace of energy which he transformed ardently into smooth, diction-clear phrasing and assured height in the voice. With confident playfulness, Kovalevska followed up beautifully with "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì' ("Yes, they call me Mimì"), the voice airy, bright and blooming on a woman she gave touching complexity to. Their performances felt genuine, unforced and, right to the tragic end, they appeared to give it their all. The intimacy of such moments clearly kept the drama well on top of the spectacle but there were times when more thoughtful stage blocking would have allowed the audience to work out where a soloist is singing from amongst a large ensemble. 

There was no reason for Julie Lea Goodwin to stand too far aside from the limelight. Her feisty but sympathetic Musetta was a stunner and sung with persuasive starry gusto. Christopher Tonkin’s Marcello was a perfectly bold match for Goodwin’s Musetta, rich, muscular and resonant in voice at his best, though without consistent amplified smoothness. Christopher Hillier, in a handsome pink suit with flared-trousers, added quality of voice and groove as Schaunard and John Bolton Wood brought years of experience and character to twin roles -  Benoît the crusty landlord and Musetta’s sugar daddy, Alcindoro, smartly reinterpreted as the Chief of Police. And as a big-hearted bearded Colline, broad bass Richard Anderson’s farewell aria to his coat, "Vecchia zimarra" ("Old coat") is a highlight, an aria that Puccini seems to have ingeniously written with the immense solemnity that marches towards the impending shock of Mimì’s passing.

If shedding a tear is any indication, you could say the heart of the story cut through effectively. A little tweaking here and there would add to the clarity along the way but the quality on stage and the huge collaborative artistry that makes up the spectacle are to be praised, as is Morton’s first-time directorship of the event. Many who come to Sydney will be wondering and waiting for what’s next. 

Production photos unavailable for secondary cast

La bohème on Sydney Harbour
Handa and Opera Australia 
Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, 
Until 22nd April, 2018

Production Photos: Prudence Upton