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