Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Vivaldi's Farnace opens in an Australian premiere thrumming with astounding impact from Sydney's Pinchgut Opera

In the 21st century, baroque opera can still show it has the ingredients to make an astounding impact. Thank goodness the scholarship and craftsmanship exists to help it so. In yet another phenomenal showcase of the period’s musical brilliance from Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, and after more than 290 years since it premiered in 1727, Vivaldi’s Farnace received its Australian premiere on Wednesday night.

Christopher Lowrey as Farnace
Top to bottom, the entire cast sang miracle after miracle of the human voice’s capabilities to impress the ear and jolt the emotions and Artistic Director Erin Helyard’s signature whole-hearted conducting ensured Vivaldi’s assortment of flavoursome orchestrations received their most vividly depicted form. We owe much to Helyard, too, in piecing together the third act of the work after Vivaldi’s 1738 revision for the opera house in Ferrara in which Vivaldi had only completed the first two acts. Helyard has a knack for achieving seamless connections between music and drama and Farnace came to a triumphant finale with no exception. From the first thrumming chords, the musical landscape resounded and ballooned with exciting tempi and the superlative musicianship of Orchestra of the Antipodes never wained.

The opera’s story is set in ancient Pontus, a region in the modern-day eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. Farnace, its king - he is the son of Mitridate, who also features in Mozart’s early ‘opera seria’ Mitridate, re di Ponto - is on the edge of defeat against the Romans and he’s up against a series of battles with his enemies, his family and his conscience. Without detailing the nitty gritty, it’s a world where love seems in little supply while strong individual identities thrash out their thoughts and desires. In the end, however, love prevails over honour, duty and vengeance. But, for all the hatred, violence, scheming and looming murderous intent, every principal player manages to escape death in an almost incredulous but most uplifting conclusion.

Helen Sherman as Tamiri
Not a trace of museum-piece stuffiness is evident in Mark Gaal’s firmly planted and glossy direction that thrusts the plot forward and designer Isabel Hudson’s cleverly resolved design that translates space both as internal and external with dark and oppressive moods. Hudson’s u-shaped colonnaded set, with second level perimeter walkway accessed by ladder, provides an impressive backdrop as secret bunker, palace chambers and external surrounds. Black military attire prevails in this skyless and updated machine gun handled age, lit with variety and sharpness by Benjamin Brockman. Six bagged bodies hang from above in a reminder that perhaps everyone’s life hangs in the balance in a precipitous political climate. In all, it feels not too far from the reality of some modern day hotspots.

American-born countertenor Christopher Lowrey, who has shown the depth of his performance style in previous Pinchgut productions (as Tamerlano in Vivaldi's Bajazet and Didymus in Theodora), is every bit convincing in the title role as Farnace. Lowrey introduces Farnace as a heroic but heartless persona with a monumental edifice of vocal intensity and dexterity, demanding his wife Tamiri kill their son and herself to avoid falling victim to the enemy. When Farnace later believes his son to be dead, the anguish that Lowrey pours from the voice as he holds the boy’s toy gun in “Gelido in ogni vena”, becomes a long and riveting remorseful aria that signals a hint of Farnace’s heart to come in a brilliant close to Part One. Farnace, like everyone undergoes a transformation of sorts. When he later hears Tamiri’s outpouring of love for him, facing away from her and clearly gutted by his earlier decision, no doubt the tears welled for many, too, as Lowrey sang an utterly moving “Si, qualche nume o qualche stelle”, turned to her and took her hand while on his knees.

Jacqueline Dark as Berenice
How could he not? As Tamiri, Australian mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman (previously Poppea in L’incoronazione di Poppea and Irene in Bajazet for Pinchgut) had just delivered a melting and emotive “Sol da te, mio dolce amore” while Mikaela Oberg lended excellence on flute accompaniment. Sherman’s plush and agile sound filled the hall and soul with splendour in portraying Tamiri with maternal nature and self-determination. Not a skerrick of worthy attributes could be bestowed on mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark's hurricane force Berenice, Farnace’s mother-in-law who is in cahoots with the Roman leader Pompeo and wants Farnace dead in revenge for Farnace’s father having killed her husband. Caped and evil-eyed, Dark,  in her Pinchgut debut and whose impressive versatility in all things vocal, from musical theatre, cabaret and opera that spans the centuries, is a commanding presence as she puts a venomous bite to the text and pounds out her haunting aria of vengeance, “Da quel ferro”. But there's a jackknife turn and Berenice does come good. 

Soprano Taryn Fiebig is a playful and gorgeously starling voiced Selinda, Farnace’s loyal sister and a comic side dish whose agenda includes seducing the captain of Berenice’s army Gilade and the Roman prefect Aquilio. As Gilade, hearing the divinely bright and fluid countertenor of Max Reibl, winner of the 2017 Herald Sun Aria, is pure luxury. In a totally assured performance that includes giving the Midas touch to one of the highlights of the night, “Scherza l’aura lusinghiera”, surely an international career is his should he wish. Tenor Michael Petruccelli is muscled and powerful in voice as Aquilio and Timothy Reynolds’ warm tenor reflects a marginally merciful Pompeo.

I almost missed the opportunity to get to Sydney for Pinchgut Opera’s Farnace. Had I, one of the year’s highlights would have slipped from my experiences. The company have already brought home Best Rediscovered Work from the International Opera Awards for Hasse’s Artaserse. Undoubtedly, an award awaits Farnace as well.

Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall
Until 10th December 2019

Production Photos: Brett Boardman 

Moral hypocrisy exposed in a lavish spectacle comes to Melbourne in Opera Australia's Faust: Herald Sun Review

Published in Herald Sun Melbourne in print 3rd December 2019

Make a deal with the devil and suffer the consequences in a world where only god can provide salvation. That’s the far-reaching message in Gounod’s mid-19th century grand French opera, Faust, based on Goethe’s highly influential play. With more than a century of passing, its religious and moral fear-mongering might appear heavy-handed but the work still delivers a jolt.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Méphistophélès and the
Opera Australia Chorus
Not only is director David McVicar’s Faust for Opera Australia a lavish spectacle that surprises at every turn - right up to a devil in drag - it draws you in to contemplate its many directorial and scenographic choices that highlight, above all, moral hypocrisy. In its clever update from 16th century Germany to Second Empire Paris on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war, the juxtaposition of church, theatre and civic life is a constant source of intrigue.

The frail, old Faust gives himself to the devil in exchange for youth, falls in love with the innocent Marguerite and, coerced by Méphistophélès to pursue more than affection, gets her pregnant. Marguerite’s downfall is rapid, the tragedy pronounced by choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan’s multi-emotive Walpurgisnacht Ballet, its grotesque half-theatre, half-hallucination a brilliant summary as Marguerite is shamed while the ogling male aristocracy of the Paris Opera audience prey on their targets.

Maria Mudrya as Marguerite and Saimir Pirgu as Faust
On opening night, as the old Faust, an initial harshness in Saimir Pirgu’s striking volcanic tenor settled as he took on handsome youth with passion and wariness. In a Melbourne and role debut, Maria Mudrya detailed Marguerite’s trajectory with poignancy with her bright soprano but vocal shading was often insufficiently utilised despite reserves of thrilling power. 

There was a telling, sometimes likeable, side to Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ towering Méphistophélès as he morphed from one huge identity to another. Anna Dowsley was an all-round shiner as Siébel but baritone Luke Gabbedy was the night’s treasure in a seamless and devastatingly stirring turn as Marguerite’s protective but judgemental brother Valentin.

Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire dug deep to extract the ebb and flow of Gounod’s score without urgency and the thrillingly mobilised OA Chorus finished on a notably rousing level fit to please god. 

Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 7th December 2019


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Friday, November 29, 2019

Published online at Limelight Magazine 29th November 2019

I don’t usually talk much about favourites but if I were to compile a list of my top 100 favourite operas, German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel would be somewhere in the broad mix. The effervescent melodies and folk tunes, evocative musical landscapes and darker interjections that characterise Humperdinck’s three-act work, loosely based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, tell the story with immeasurable appeal. It premiered in Weimar on December 23, 1893, under the baton of Richard Strauss no less, and was an instant success. Often staged in the holiday seasons at Christmas time, it remains one of the great joys of opera.

Even without a cottage in the woods and a witch’s mouth-watering gingerbread house, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra took to the stage on Thursday night as a formidable musical force, engaging the imagination with vivid storytelling. Under the direction of outgoing Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis, they were the stars of the night.

From its opening, with the plaintive brass notes that give way to warm strings resonating like wind in the trees, the overture moved forward with inspired handling. It signalled what was to come as Davis emphasised the romantic score’s emotionalism while taking great care not to overegg its dramatic component. Part of the score’s dramatic workings come from Humperdinck’s synthesis of Wagnerian techniques, notably the use of leitmotifs, and every time they reappeared, their confidently delivered form resonated. If you are familiar with Wagner’s Fafner and Fasolt, you would swear they were lurking in the witch’s dark forest.

Sung in German with English surtitles, they were joined by Americans mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Hansel and soprano Laura Wilde as Gretel. The pair may not have been matched in height but these two expressive and pleasantly contrasting singers showed it wasn’t going to be an entirely static affair.

Dainty but direct and sensible, with a skip to her Gretel, Wilde brought ample brightness and feeling to her lines, though there was an occasional loss of clarity in the lower reaches of the voice. The unhurried and free-flowing nature Wilde brought to "There Stands a Little Man" charmed immensely and the beauty she could gather in the voice, turning it into powerful intent, was on splendid show as she woke up Hansel with some tickling.

DeShong’s Hansel was a little more moody and much more the scallywag. Singing with rich fruity assortment and sturdy support, DeShong delved deep and chartered high with a fullness in sound that resonated impressively. When it came to having to spend the night in the forest, DeShong could just as easily shine in the softest of territory. Together with Wilde, their "Evening Prayer" became a pearl encrusted gossamer veil in one of the most heavenly renditions possible. Davis underlined it sensitively, the silken strings leading magnificently to the Dream Sequence in a musical journey of adventure and tension that closed Act 2 before interval.

Returning home with a bagful of food to feed his impoverished family, James Clayton was commanding as the Father. He arrived muscularly voiced with a swagger in delivery, comically revealing that Humperdinck’s librettist and sister, Adelheid Wette, surely never wrote “Stone the crows. It’s Vegemite” into the libretto. With his towering oaky bass, Clayton was especially primed as he gave a gripping account of the witches on their broomsticks in the forest, cutting through the orchestra with a fearful blade of sound.

As the Mother, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell wielded her mothering skills with an iron fist and it reflected in her steely mezzo-soprano but, sadly, the bulkiness of the music felt lost. As the Witch, you expected a performance with panache when Brisbane-born Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu showed up in Act 3 blonde-wigged and gaudily shimmering in drag. It was a hoot. Nonetheless, the wig had difficulty staying on and Lehtipuu’s mostly wiry delivery left the Witch lacking convincing menace. As both the Dew Fairy and Sandman, Stacey Alleaume was a jewel-like sparkle, her soprano clear and penetrating from the left choir stalls as she looked down on the siblings. The combined National Boys Choir of Australia and Australian Girls Choir, singing from the rear as children liberated from a gingerbread life, were in angelic unison.

The orchestra maintained an excellent level of playing, the brass polished and balanced, the percussion distinctive and the woodwinds slithering through with flights of vitality while the reinforced strings were superbly meshed. It seemed odd and ill-conceived, however, presenting such a delicious delight without some form of semi-staged effort. As a fairy-tale most children will learn about, it was a shame no provision was made for their enjoyment.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A comic charmer in a modern world premiere of a baroque rarity arrives in lively flamboyant style from San Francisco’s Ars Minerva

In the latter part of the 17th century, Domenico Freschi no doubt sermonised his Roman Catholic beliefs as a priest in the northern Italian town of Vicenza. He was also maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Vicenza, writing church music for the parishioners. The young man of the cloth had a side job too, as a composer of at least 16 known operas - though known to very few today. But in comes San Francisco’s Ars Minerva and Freschi gets some decidedly expert attention in a work that shimmies along in a delightful evening of music and storytelling in flamboyant style and deliciously sung form.

Nikola Printz as Ermelinda 
What is notable about Ermelinda, a 'dramma per musica' penned by Freschi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piccioli in 1680, is the economy of means by which the drama is drawn. The ternary ‘da capo’ form is absent and action is briskly carried forward with dominant use of the ‘cavatina’, or short operatic arias. Plump with melodic charm, it’s all over within two easy hours, including a 20-minute interval, under Artistic Director Céline Ricci’s lively flowing direction.

It’s a comically charged story where lovers have hurdles to jump, love can be supposedly mad and deceptions reveal truths. Ermelinda is shuffled off to the countryside by her father Aristeo who, much like Verdi’s Rigoletto, intends to shield her from urban life’s temptations. Of course, it doesn’t work. Ermelinda’s secret lover, Prince Ormondo, has followed her. He’s disguised as Clorindo, a peasant, and is fortuitously invited to stay with the nobleman Armidoro. But Armidoro’s sister, Ermelinda’s friend Rosaura, takes a shine to Clorindo and Armidoro has a thing for Ermelinda. Twists and turns ensue in this pantomime of sorts on its way to a happy ending as Freschi entertainingly demonstrates a realist’s approach in a not so absurd set of circumstances. 

Sara Couden as Ormindo
We’re in Phoenicia, an apparently fabricated setting having no relationship with the ancient east Mediterranean ancient civilisation. Nonetheless, with designer Entropy’s evocatively rendered settings, Phoenicia reveals its bucolic attributes in projections integrated cleverly with the storytelling under Thomas Bowersox’s seductive lighting and its exotic flair with touches of Arabia in Matthew Nash’s masterful costumes. 

Up close and intimate, the performance shows itself as a beautifully cast unit with voice types transposed convincingly. For it, strong identity is given to the two female parts and two female voices take on male parts likely written for castrati. Ermelinda’s father Aristeo, a rather insipid character adorned by some handsomely crafted music, is sung in countertenor. Justin Montigne acquits himself commendably in the role, measuring his capabilities sensibly with his bright and crisp tone while a nervous twitch indicates a degree of madness of one trying to cure the madness of one acting it to conceal their identity and feelings - and it’s not that confusing!

Justin Montigne as Aristeo, Kindra Scharich as Rosaura
and Sara Couden as Ormindo 
Nudging ahead as most impressive, gloriously sonorous contralto Sara Couden’s Ormondo is an endearing sort - a prince doing his utmost to act like a bumpkin - and she interprets his part with hugely textured vocal appeal, one as rich as plum pudding, with lashings of comic aplomb to go with it.

In the title role, mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz is polished and plush in voice as a spirited and quick-thinking Ermelinda. Printz’s elegance of line and emotive calibration radiates splendidly in Ermelinda’s rickety journey to secure her love and you can’t help but follow her expressive eyes as she does so. Rosaura is a vivacious firecracker of a girl to whom mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich makes a delightful and ostentatious floral concoction in voice and costume and, portraying a head-held-high aristocratic Armidoro as the third mezzo-soprano plying her trade, Deborah Rosengaus’ vocal radiance and refined wafer-like vibrato completes an uplifting evening of singing. 

Positioned in clear view to the side and humorously involved in the running, Grammy-nominated harpsichordist Jory Vinikour conducted five musicians from the keyboard giving balance and lilt to the score. Together with Gretchen Claassen on cello and Adam Cockerham on theorbo, the most consistent and emotive music emanated. A small quibble but a little more warmth from the smaller strings would have added increased fluidity.

Fancy, though, sitting down to experience an opera that hasn’t been staged since its premiere season almost 340 years ago. In this modern world premiere as part of Ars Minerva’s fifth annual production of such rarities, another piece of history that builds the story of opera has left the museum and made its mark in present times.

Ars Minerva
B.Way Theatre, 3153 17th Street San Francisco
Until 24th November 2019

Production Photos: Teresa Tam

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Graeme Murphy's rhythmically alive Turandot returns to Melbourne with impressive musical quality

Published online at Herald Sun 20th November and in print 21st November 2019

When Opera Australia’s near 30-year -old production of Turandot opened on Tuesday night, many might have thought director Graeme Murphy’s dark and dynamic work was seeing its last days. Word has it, however, that there aren’t any plans yet to replace it for the company’s new utilisation of high-definition LED screens.

Lise Lindstom as Turandot, Walter Fraccaro as Calaf 
In its latest revival under director Kim Walker, the opera’s exotic theatrical fantasy is boldly underlined. From the start, when a crowd of oppressed citizens create waves of movement across the stage, rhythmical continuity becomes key to its success. Murphy’s choreographic skills are put to effective use even though patches can feel dated.

Ribbons of blood, waving banners, threatening swords and towering figures of rule set the scene in ancient Peking. The plot revolves around solving three riddles that would give a prince the right to marry an ice-hearted princess. Almost entirely, Puccini’s music creates the drama in what is a rather emotionally meagre story. For it, Christian Badea’s bold, tension-building approach to the score was a winner, as was Orchestra Victoria’s excellence.

Walter Fraccaro as Calàf, Christopher Hillier as Ping,
John Longmuir as Pong and Virgilio Marino as Pang
The singing was impressive too. As Turandot, when soprano Lise Lindstrom proclaimed “No man will ever own me!”, she brought out the full force of long- harboured anguish and seemingly sang for all women. In a reminder of her searing 2016 OA Ring’s Brünnhilde, Lindstrom’s vocal power burned long and intensely with no shortage of nuance and fluidity to go with it in this demanding role. An impassioned heart and voice accompanied tenor Walter Fraccaro’s renegade Calaf. Not every phrase was sealed with the chiaroscuro beauty he portrayed but Act 3’s renowned opening Nessun dorma! certainly sealed his audience’s approval.

In a tragic consequence of circumstances, soprano Karah Son was a standout as a poignantly sung Liù, the slave girl who sacrifices her life for Calaf. The choruses sang with thrilling purpose and Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir nailed their parts splendidly in voice and manoeuvres as a highly experienced trio of imperial ministers. Given that Turandot doesn’t sing a note until the middle of Act 2, they just about steal the show.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until December 6


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Hansel and Gretel’s purposeful storytelling and magical transition releases its charm at San Francisco Opera

In a family-friendly mix of good and evil and a delightful touch of hocus pocus, Engelbert Humperdinck’s most familiar opera, Hansel and Gretel, opened in a new production for San Francisco Opera on Friday night. Co-produced with London’s Royal Opera and both directed and designed by Antony McDjonald, the work pours out a good measure of more relaxed opera entertainment as the holiday season approaches.

Sasha Cooke as Hansel and Heidi Stober as Gretel 
That’s not to say that Humperdinck approached this Grimm brothers’ fairytale lightly. There’s so much glorious space to bask in with Humperdinck’s tapestry of meandering and effervescent melodies, musical landscapes and darker interjections to match the intensity of the heavyweight master of Bayreuth, Richard Wagner. And German librettist Adelheid Wette’s translated and sung English text for this two-hour, three-act 1893 opera is a rhyming cracker. 

McDonald has taken the more traditional and folkloric conceptual path and added characters of requisite largesse and vitality to its picture. A cuckoo clock that winds time from good times to poor above a proscenium-filled framed alpine setting sets the story in motion. It’s a cosy start that leads into the reality of Hansel and Gretel’s shirked at chore-ridden day. That the magic is kept at bay until Act 2’s evocative forest scene, one in which Hansel and Gretel’s dream becomes a wonderfully woven story of fairytale characters, is understandable. If not for Lucy Burge’s amusingly choreographed routines in Act 1 the kids of the audience might have demanded more. 

Michaela Martens as Mother and Alfred Walker as Father 
But then madness is mixed with magic in Act 3 when the witch’s house in the forest appears in a reference to Hitchcock’s  creepy Psycho mansion - a cake, in fact, with a giant knife sliced through the top. By this time, you can see how McDonald has purposefully transitioned the storytelling. After a fabulously sticky chocolatey end for the witch, it comes to land gently on the released children, angelically sung, in a thankfully not too bombastic god-guiding end of prayer’s value.

On opening night, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was a clear standout, rich and resonant of voice as the more pragmatic Hansel and full of adorable cheekiness to go with it. Soprano Heidi Stober added radiance as the sensible and dreamy Gretel, producing the magnificent fullness of a soaring top but bogged down at times by fuzzy diction and phrasing that dissipated in the lower parts of the voice. Importantly, the operatic pair appear in their element as nimble young siblings who are more or less struggling with but learning to balance responsibility with easy-come fun and adventure.

Dream pantomime tableau from Hansel and Gretel
As the parents trying to balance their own issues, dark mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens and earthy baritone Alfred Walker were a powerful blend of contrast and connection with Martens giving tenor Robert Brubaker’s raggedly sung psychotic witch a run for his money in conjuring up menace. Ashley Dixon was invitingly warm as the Sandman and Natalie Image sprinkled her charms as the Dew Fairy.

Overall, however, some attention seemed needed from the cast in projecting more consistently and smoothly. And, despite the gorgeously pronounced patches of expansive music under the baton of Christopher Franklin, the music occasionally ran its own show. With a three-week performance run to come, there’s wriggle room for tweaking such details. Hansel and Gretel is one of the great operatic joys of opera and once seen and heard, as little nippers sing out for, it’s hard not to imagine its story told in any other way.

Hansel and Gretel 
San Francisco Opera 
War Memorial Opera House
Until 7th December 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Friday, November 15, 2019

Captivating music of the highest order with Simone Young conducting the San Francisco Symphony

At Thursday night’s San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall, in an hour-long resplendent vocal dramatisation, Act 1 of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre headlined the program. And with it, the ongoing exhilaration and wide-ranging temperament achieved in the score certainly would have left many wide-eyed and open-mouthed patrons hungry for the whole lengthy lot. On display was an extraordinary showcase of meaningful singing and captivating music of the highest order.

Stuart Skelton, Simone Young, Emily Magee and Ain Anger
It was great to see American soprano Emily Magee and Estonian bass Ain Anger perform again to remind me of their great gift of expressiveness. But, as a visitor from way way down south, how grand it was to see two Aussies together on the concert stage with heldentenor Stuart Skelton alongside Simone Young commandeering a right marvel.

Skelton sung the role of Siegmund with unshakable, heroic strength in a voice surely at its finest, a voice that captured seemingly infinite nuance of statement, inquiry and thought and that was as intoxicating to the ear as it was gripping for the soul. “Wälse! Wälse! ... Nothung! Nothung!” More! More of that extraordinary sound please, was what the audience seemed to want. With a Skelton kind of ferocity - sitting at the edge of my seat just a few metres away - it seemed every aching desire a human pleads for felt like it could be summoned with ease. And Skelton’s superlative preparation and experience meant he could do without the hindrance of a music stand.

A radiant voiced Emily Magee lived her Sieglinde heart and soul, lifting the high notes to beautifully formed treasures and communicating her condition with utmost exactness. Though not as solid in the depths of chesty lows, Magee’s was a convincing and stunning performance that presented robust and sensitive handling alongside Skelton’s heft.

Simone Young conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra 
Ain Anger! Well, what a handsome presence and, with it, what a strapping fine voice he drenched his audience in!  Anger left no stone unturned in bringing out all the tension and menacing undercurrent in Hunding’s character and did so with such unselfconscious suavity.

The music breathed its internal restlessness and poignancy under Young’s vigour and gestural voluptuousness. In the first part of the program Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, however much of a contrast it provided, never felt overshadowed. Composed late in life during the end of World War II, it received just as much love from Young and the versatile players of the San Francisco Symphony. Metamorphosen built its appeal over its 26 minute duration to become an absorbing work as it bleeds from the solemn and introspective to yearning for optimism and closing sense of tranquility. In a work orchestrated for 23 stringed instruments, an experience was created that exposed the inner polish of its many layers through impressive drift and charge of the tempi. And the musicians played superbly, both like soloists and synchronisers as they spun it all into rich textures.

Perhaps it was never going to be surprising that this concert ended as one of those nights in the year when one gets smothered in such an illuminating confluence  of forces. On top of that it became a further reminder that art and humankind are indeed a blessed pair.

Simone Young Conducts Wagner
San Francisco Sympathy 
Davies Symphony Hall

Until 16th November 2019

Performance Photos: Stefan Cohen

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Scaled down on a shoestring, Melbourne's BK Opera brings the tragedy home in Puccini's La bohème

Since 2016, BK Opera have been working at grassroots level with emerging artists in bringing opera to audiences in a wide range of performance spaces with no ounce of snobbery attached. Concluding its third full season (the little company presents around three productions each year), Artistic Director Kate Millet has taken on Puccini’s 1896 premiered popular work, La bohème, and swung it into the 1950s with a sharp sense of immediacy. You’re up close and intimate in the cosy ambience of another new venue for this itinerant band and, despite being a little ragged at the edges, it’s a stark reminder that operatic storytelling exists on so many scales.

Belinda Dalton as Mimi, James Penn as Rodolfo and
Jordan Auld as Musetta
Millet’s pared production is sung with passion whilst delivered on a shoestring in its telling of the central tragic love story of the ailing seamstress Mimi and struggling poet Rodolfo. And although it might be stretching things in believing you’re amongst the salons and cafes of 1950s Paris, you certainly get the impression that they and their bohemian friends are just as well dealing with the blows of young love and life as much as young adults amongst us do today.

Belinda Dalton is an excellently cast Mimi and well worth the ticket alone. Dalton’s Mimi is alert, sensitive and carries a deeply felt inner strength that provides thoughtful contrast to her tuberculosis-stricken petite frame. Vocally, Dalton colours and texturises her music attractively with a notable purity of tone and appealing modulation to accompany it, carrying it seamlessly through until the final act’s teary end.

Tenor James Penn, exchanging his usual lead as conductor for lead character, is an ardent, edgy and excitable Rodolfo, Mimi’s sentimental and self-confessed jealous lover. The chemistry Penn shares with Dalton doesn’t always spark and there’s a tendency to force the vocal lines but there are many moments of genuine feeling that waft out on his more subtly produced singing.

Daniel Felton as Schaunard and the cast of BK Opera's La bohème
On the other hand, there are no shortage of sparks between suave baritone Andrew Alesi and radiant soprano Jordan Auld as the hot-headed painter Marcello and flirtatious Musetta respectively, Auld making a particularly alluring example of a woman not to be messed with.

As the philosopher Colline, bass Peter Tregear sings a compellingly solemn sayonara to his dearly loved coat and, as the musician Schaunard, smooth baritone Daniel Felton is a nimble presence without the flamboyance in style you would generally see. And, in a decidedly clever act of casting the bohemian’s landlord Benoit and Musetta’s wealthy old lover Alcindoro as two archetypal opposite females rolled into one part, alto Alicia Groves provides a sweet injection.

Puccini’s masterfully painted shifts of sweeping melody, dramatic rises and abrupt shocks, however, rarely lift off the page. On opening, it didn’t matter how agile and competent around the keyboard Pam Christie was or how conductor Joseph Hie moved the night along, the lack of warmth, richness and resonance in the music was disappointing. The translated titles projected on the back wall weren’t behaving either and disappeared for long lengths of time, although some such things are a minor blot on the stage. Still, it’s opera with a big heart and a welcome part of Melbourne’s scene.

La bohème 
BK Opera
Wesley Anne
250 High Street, Northcote
Until 21st November 2019

Production Photos: Courtesy of BK Opera

Sunday, November 10, 2019

In director Olivier Tambosi’s energised revival, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut returns splendidly to San Francisco Opera

The narrative gaps in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut are hard not to find fault with. In director Olivier Tambosi’s production, however, they can almost feel forgotten as part of its attractive and energised revival at San Francisco Opera. Tambosi gives powerful padding to its themes and an excellent team of singers presented characters of surprisingly impressive dimensionality.

Lianna Haroutounian as Manon and Zhengyi Bai as the Dancing Master
In its four-part episodic story of brisk circumstantial changes, Manon’s desire to romp about riches could easily have the affect of distancing her from the audience’s heart. On the brink of being shuffled into a convent before being swept off her feet by the impassioned student Chevalier des Grieux, to a life of luxury in the clutches of old Geronte di Revoir, Manon falls back again in the embrace of love with des Grieux. In Albanian soprano Lianna Haroutounian’s superbly nuanced performance of the title role, however, Manon’s desire for wealth and her vanity pale significantly against a foreground of disenfranchised and abused women by self-entitled men of which she is the unfortunate figurehead. 

Haroutounian delved deep and soared powerfully with a glistening top range that sung of Manon’s flightiness, desperation and predicament. Manon Lescaut marks Haroutounian’s fourth role debut for San Francisco Opera, one in which her combined conviction and richness of voice cemented her stature on Puccini’s tragically drawn women. At first showing reluctance to look into des Grieux’s eyes, Haroutounian gave Manon a sense of aloofness and reveals her feelings measuredly to go hand in hand with Puccini’s music. Each new episode brings a compelling dramatic turn and Haroutounian emblazoned them all with operatic splendour. Manon’s Act 2 aria reflecting on the cheerful and secluded cottage with des Grieux was a particularly heartfelt reflection and a performance highlight in which she demonstrated extraordinary ability to manoeuvre through core emotional territory with vocal dexterity. But Haroutounian’s best was to come, on the way showing no signs of waning, in the gravity of Act 4’s “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”, where, alone in the desert as des Grieux searches for water, she contemplates her beauty and fate.
Lianna Haroutounian as Manon and Brian Jagde as Des Grieux

In Manon, des Grieux sees more, drawn to her by both her beauty and a heart hidden by sadness and to whom American tenor Brian Jagde gave vocal force of Himalayan magnificence. Manon’s destiny lies hopelessly in the hands of others and while des Grieux presses into her life as a welcome hero, even he cannot alter a course of doom. In Abbé Prévost’s novel of 1731 novel L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, on which the opera is based, des Grieux even precipitates it. 

Forceful without showiness and having the physical presence that matters, Jagde whipped up unstoppable gusto as the valiant young man as emotions cascaded in thoughtfully targeted singing. With a tingling and wowing “Pazzo son!” that closed Act 3, as the captain of the ship sees des Grieux’s grief, Jagde gave substance to a moment in life when things change in a flash and let loose the greatest emotive highlight of opening night.

Philip Skinner as Geronte and
Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut
Once baritone Anthony Clark Evans revved up a low range that sank out of audibility, the full range and muscularity of his instrument was on handsome display as Manon’s chameleon-natured brother, Lescaut. In grand, smouldering bass-baritone form, Philip Skinner added giant sized character to an old ox Geronte, only marginally staving off a heart attack in his lust for Manon. Adler Fellows Christopher Oglesby, Ashley Dixon and Zhengyi Bai acquitted themselves finely with Oglesby bringing youthful swagger to Edmondo and Bai making an especially sumptuous turn as the Dancing Master. It wasn’t a night to revel in for the usually reliable chorus, however, as timings faltered and textures sagged. 

What never seemed to disappoint was former San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti’s guiding hand in bringing much translucency and weight to the score. The warmly applauded intermezzo before Act 3 was a notably splendid affair that elicited reflection on the journey taken and on what would come.

As the production goes, Tambosi ups the frivolity with wit and the emotional barometer with agency as the plot heads towards a tragedy that has little chance of avoidance. In Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s marvellous scenic design, alluding to the story’s second half of the 18th century setting, Act 1 is a lively procession of village activity and Act 2’s stately blue boudoir in Geronte's house in Paris is busier than Bourke Street as all the comings and goings bore the pampered Manon. The gloom that hangs over Act 3’s setting near the harbour in Le Havre reveals the horror and indignity that brands a fallen woman and Act 4 is a heart wrenching end on the sparse set of the Louisiana plains, even if not one of the five librettists credited with the libretto explain how the pair end up there fighting death. 

The narrative nuts and bolts, in the end, are well taken care of by Puccini. While Manon Lescaut doesn’t share the same dramatic mastery that was to come in later works, there are reminders aplenty in its score of the riches these future works harbour. 

Manon Lescaut
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 26th November 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Enchanted Pig arrives in its Australian premiere in a splendidly rendered staging at the Yarra Valley Opera Festival: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight Magazine, 21st October 2019

There’s a lot of singing about love in English composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton’s The Enchanted Pig. Loud and clear, you hear love is a wonder, love is strange, and love is a drug. It can make you happy, a hero and a fool. For a princess in love with a pig who is actually a king under a spell that she sets out to break, it turns out that love, among many things, is a journey of patience, trust and perseverance. And it unfolds with the help of the North Wind, the Moon and the Sun, as well as the Milky Way, as part of a splendidly rendered staging by Gale Edwards in Gertrude Opera’s Australian premiere of the work at the Yarra Valley Opera Festival.

Naomi Flatman, Joshua Oxley, Sheridan Hughes,
Yu Lin and Sam Roberts-Smith 
The Enchanted Pig was first performed in London in 2006 to great success and went on to Broadway in 2011. Dove and Middleton’s two-act work, adapted from a Romanian folk tale with an immediate whiff of Beauty and the Beast about it, is a dense treasure of rolling tunes and spicy lyrics. It can feel in company with the pulsating metre of Sondheim, the lyricism of Porter, a touch of Bernstein and Britten or the pizazz of cabaret, but it also has its own beating heart which, in turn, gives it its own appealing uniqueness as a through-composed work. Only two keyboards, harp, trombone, cello, double bass and percussion are its make-up of instruments, and seven fine musicians its band, but the soundscape feels much broader. On Friday night’s opening under the Festival’s large white tent, conductor Patrick Burns kept the momentum alive, with space made for swatches of shimmering sensitivity.

In Joseph Noonan’s simple, punchy design, three chairs on a checkerboard floor lead to stately double doors surrounded by a tinsel curtain. The vitality, colour and beauty that follow are nothing less than uplifting under Jason Crick’s commanding lighting. Noonan’s layout lends itself superbly to the quick-paced nature of the work, with Edwards’ variety act-like moments keeping the action flowing with scenes that explode onto the stage and evaporate in a flash.

Naomi Flatman as Flora and Sam Roberts-Smith as the Pig
Oscar-winning costume designer Tim Chappel brings a wild and witty mix to the stage, as if to say what one wears can be as diverse in style as how love can be defined. From gladiatorial to medieval, fantastical and modern, Chappel’s costumes are pivotal to the production’s seduction and have such vivid identities that you might believe their wearers had fallen under their spell. And it seemed so with performances that were excellent across the board. Full credit to the ensemble cast of 16 who never miss a beat and who take on multiple roles, including as a chorus of lab-coated scientists whose main purpose is to put love under the microscope.

Resonant, muscular in voice and often accompanied with an air of unflattering brass, baritone Sam Roberts-Smith is something of a cross between gladiator and subject of bondage as the Pig by day, and a figure of dashing masculinity by night. He may have the title role but vocal parts are spread generously across the cast. Mezzo-soprano Naomi Flatman is outstanding as the besotted Flora, with vocal colours aplenty and convincing in making palpable the character’s determination and resilience. Flora’s loving sentiments weren’t instantaneous, having seen sisters Mab and Dot – Sheridan Hughes and Yu Lin do a fine job in hamming it up as princesses – in their happy unions with the King of the West (Joshua Oxley) and the King of the East (Harry Grigg). Grigg makes a particularly good impression, his radiant tenor beautifying his aria as the Pierrot-like guiding Moon, while Oxley doubles as a Eurotrash attired Sun in a hilarious hip-swinging encounter.

Evil gets whipped up by the rich and ripe voiced Rose Nolan as the Old Woman who also doubles as Mrs North Wind. Zoe Drummond, as her vixen-like daughter, Adelaide, launches into one of many performance highlights with a bridezilla outburst in front of her wedding caterers, her soprano assured, athletic and penetrating. As Flora’s father, Markus Matheis is a magnetic King Hildebrand, giving pliable expression in both physical and vocal form, carried through in his duet as Mr North Wind with Nolan’s Mrs North in a brilliant, comic description of love. And Alexandra Amerides is quite literally a pedestal of support as The Book of Fate, who seals Flora and her sister’s future after they enter a room forbidden by their father.

The cast of The Enchanted Pig
Golden casting choices, strong ensemble singing, costumes and design that dazzle and charm, with a small but impactful orchestra setting the course – Artistic Director Linda Thompson really does demonstrate how it’s possible to be world class while working on a shoestring. It’s a shoestring with unbreakable threads of talent, tenacity and grit, with some inexpensive tinsel spun in for good measure. Still, you can’t help feeling disheartened that performing arts companies such as these are crying out for government funding with arts coverage in mainstream media diminishing at the same time.

Take someone you love to see The Enchanted Pig. Its spirit and intensity will reverberate long after the joyous ending and it’s less than an hour’s drive to the enchanting Yarra Valley for added special effect. While you’re deciding, there’s a re-envisioned production of Verdi’s Macbeth by award-winning director Luke Leonard to consider as well and, extending the timeline further back, another Gale Edwards production in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea.

The Enchanted Pig
Gertrude Opera, Yarra Valley Opera Festival
Olinda Yarra Estate
Until 27th October 2019

Production Photos: Lyz Turner-Clark

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A little moral and endearing magic in the world premiere of Victorian Opera’s The Selfish Giant

In a simple tale with a simple message, theatrically drawn with affecting heart, youthful life and a touch of wit, Victorian Opera’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant made it’s world premiere at Albert Park’s Gasworks Theatre this week. The latest in years of new works commissioned by this energetic and inclusive company, The Selfish Giant adds a little moral and endearing magic to the long list.

Stephen Marsh as The Giant and youth chorus, Victorian Opera
Most remarkably, the compact 70-minute work highlights the talents of, among many, two young artists in composer Simon Bruckard and librettist Emma Muir-Smith. Indications are that they have a bright future in musical storytelling. Bruckard’s music is variegated with aplomb and features some excellent pounding rhythms, dissonant ambience and pensive lulling passages. It’s achieved through a small ensemble of nine players and a solid balance of instruments including the unblemished work of Peter Clark on violin, Julie Raines on harp, Jasper Ly on oboe/cor anglais and Phillipa Safey on piano. Taking ownership of his composition, Bruckard conducts with an instinctively good sense of tempo and attentiveness to his team.

Muir-Smith’s libretto feels natural and direct. It also eschews the religious connection to the Christ Child in its abridged version of Wilde’s tale, one which reads much like a parable and part of a collection of children’s stories first published in 1888 as The Happy Prince and Other Stories.

In the title role, top-hatted and distinguished, the attractive, brooding and roasty baritone that Stephen Marsh characteristically exhibits is a perfect match for The Giant whose gloomy demeanour is lifted when he learns that sharing his garden gives him happiness. Bruckard has written with a deep sensitivity for The Giant and Marsh makes a sturdy and memorable portrayal of a solitary figure who comes to understand the consequences of his actions. Great at gruffness and a joy to watch skipping with the children (to a near heart-attack), Marsh reveals the gentle giant within in a warmly resonant and touching transformation. Next Wednesday, Marsh joins the finalists of the Herald Sun Aria in partnership with Melbourne Opera and, without a doubt, he has won a few more fans.

Noah Ryland as Wind, Michael Dimovski as Snow,
Olivia Federow-Yemm as Winter and Darcy Carroll as Frost
After the opening introspective bars, Spring (Saffrey Brown) and her Fairies (Stephanie Ciantar and Chloe Maree Harris) bring sweet melody and beautifully harmonised singing to The Giant’s garden.
It’s the only piece that lingers and repeats for a tad too long, giving way to the children who appear with gusto to play in the garden. The almost 30-strong members of the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) and youth opera artists are an instant delight. In their broad-checked uniforms, their vibrant singing and spirited but never over-acted acting is praiseworthy. So too is Cameron Menzies’ amply extracted and searching direction together with Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s nimble choreography. 

Taking over The Giant’s garden, Olivia Federow-Yemm’s Winter is a confident and classy horned beauty with a tendency to lash out and a fine mezzo-soprano with breadth and agility. Arriving as a noisy trio of jovial vagabonds, Michael Dimovski, Noah Ryland and Darcy Carroll are a brilliantly comic and musical threesome as they set up camp in the garden as Snow, Wind and Frost respectively. But everyone glows on stage.

And it also looks a treat in its quirky use of perspective with so much wondrous dimensionality and colour-mood as part of James Browne’s expressionist design and Eduard Inglés’ lighting. The Giant’s little cottage and armchair are a particularly evocative rendering of scale. The setting also comes with a choreographed touch as well with the chorus of children adding botanical life with painted umbrellas and icicle sharpness with cut-outs to the picture. 

But the one thing noticeably lacking in a work that Oscar Wilde wrote for children and that Victorian Opera have staged with  panache and youth was a young audience to go with it. With four sold out shows in the 200-seat theatre, it’s not only a sign that The Selfish Giant sells, but we shouldn’t be seeing the last of him.

The Selfish Giant 
Victorian Opera
Gasworks Theatre, Albert Park 
Until 19th October 2019

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross