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: