Saturday, August 17, 2019

Touching and disturbing, Breaking the Waves as opera is brought to the stage in a beautifully resolved production at San Francisco's West Edge Opera

Starting with a compelling and thought-provoking story, telling it with clarity and enacting it with dramatic sincerity can only be achieved through seamless collaboration. That’s exactly how composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves comes across in West Edge Opera’s disturbing and touching production. Further, success in the theatre often owes as much to long list of carefully resolved and well-aligned factors as it does to an ineffable and immeasurable quality that both resonates and challenges after. Breaking the Waves does that too.

Sara LeMesh as Bess McNeill
Based on Danish director Lars Von Trier’s 1996 film and premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2016, Breaking the Waves relates a foreboding story that feels both incredulous and real as it explores psychological uniqueness and collective thought. In fact, it does so much more than that as it spins a tornado of themes that won’t fail to bring challenging discussion.

The protagonist of the story is Bess McNeill, a young woman traumatised by the death of her brother years earlier but who has found love and sexual awakening when she meets and marries a North Sea oil rig worker, Jan Nyman. Bess is also inextricably joined to her austere and conservative Calvinist community in a remote coastal Scottish town. When Jan is paralysed in an industrial accident, Bess blames herself. Then, on Jan’s request but initially resistant, she agrees to have sex with other men so that the experience can be related back to him in order for their love to have ongoing sexual meaning.

It sounds perverse and, on the surface, there’s a smear of male chauvinism and sado-masochist psychology at play but their deep mutual love glows beautifully in Mazzoli’s richly faceted music and Vavrek’s vividly painted libretto. Vavrek also cleverly builds a tight narrative that is especially effective, as is Mazzoli’s superb use of chorus, in how Bess’ communion with God channels her religiously tuned psychological state, believing that every time she gives herself to other men she is giving herself to Jan and, in doing so, will help cure him. When Bess is later ostracised by her community and then beaten in a brutal episode that causes her death, Jan is cured in a miraculous ending (Wagner’s Tannhäuser came to mind) in which Bess becomes both victim and saint-like.

Sara LeMesh as Bess and Robert Wesley Mason as Jan
Sexual freedom and expression, euthanasia, suicide, bodily rights, religious indoctrination, self-sacrifice, discrimination and empowerment raise their heads, highlighting how we judge what we see as an outsider, our failings to understand the reasoning behind another’s actions and the bigger picture that influences our ideas. It’s a remarkably portrayed conglomeration of issues to stew over as part of a production perceptively directed by West Edge Opera General Director Mark Streshinsky and performed by a well-cast outfit.

As Bess, Sara LeMesh gives it her all in a role that demands extensive stage time, convincing physical application and vocal dexterity. The results LeMesh achieves are beyond measure as she takes Bess emotionally close to her audience with her cowering juvenile behaviour, her seeming delusional state, affections for Jan and her leggy prostituting poses, baring everything from vulnerability to strength with absolute conviction of heart and mind. With LeMesh comes a strikingly expressive soprano of feathery beauty and penetrating effect that matches her character convincingly.

Lovingness oozes and tested emotions are firmly rendered in Robert Wesley Mason’s handsomely rugged Jan as life turns upside down, his warm, muscular and resonant baritone a perfect casing and compliment for LeMesh’s Bess. Sumptuous mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich sings a devilishly good Dodo McNeill, Bess’ loyal and loving sister-in-law and robust tenor Alex Boyer impresses in balancing authority and compassion as Dr Richardson as does soprano Kristin Clayton as Bess’ uncompromising mother and Brandon Bell as Jan’s friend and co-worker Terry. Timings slipped here and there in an otherwise beautifully atmospheric chorus of ten males.

Kristin Clayton as Mrs Mc Neill, Sara LeMesh as Bess and
Robert Wesley Mason as Jan
Evan and Mark Streshinsky’s simple design incorporating a scrim-sheathed gabled building and strutted timber tower allows the action to be centred upon and move with fluidity from space to space. Christine Crook’s costumes adequately define the 1970s-set period and Pamila Gray’s lighting supports the dramatic mood appropriately.

Acoustic integrity, however, is undermined by The Bridge Yard’s metal cladding. At this penultimate performance, Music Director Jonathan Khuner elicited lovely tonal and textural form from the 22-strong musicians but there were times when intensity failed to lift according to drama, particularly as Bess and Jan bed for making love and when Bess says good-bye as Jan leaves for the oil rig. Mazzoli’s music is characterful and evocative, like a living organism that breathes and expires in all kinds of exciting ways. The night would have benefited even more if that musical organism had unleashed the gutsiness of the soul within.

Breaking The Waves
West Edge Opera
The Bridge Yard, Oakland CA
Until 18th August 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

In an outstanding team sporting spirit and excellence, Jonas Kaufmann soars in the title role of Opera Australia's Andrea Chénier in Melbourne

When was the last time you saw someone holding a sign outside a venue in the hope of securing a ticket to see opera in Melbourne? It’s so rare but that’s exactly what you saw outside Hamer Hall on Tuesday evening. And it certainly wouldn’t have been because they were desperate to see Umberto Giordano’s late 19th century tragic opera, Andrea Chénier, a work often criticised for its thin plot. Indeed, it has its holes but they were more than filled by the splendid musicality on show.

Ludovic Tézier, Pinchas Steinberg, Eva-Maria Westbroek
 and Jonas Kaufmann
The drawcard for Opera Australia’s sold-out concert performance of this French Revolution set story, of course, was internationally acclaimed opera star Jonas Kaufmann, handsome German tenor in the title role and the face of the opera’s advertising. Kaufmann didn’t disappoint either. Layer upon layer of magnificently coloured and carved vocals rang out from this gifted artist who deserves the glowing superlatives showered upon him, his Chénier replete with great dramatic and impassioned force and beguiling all the way to the devastating finale. Fortunately, alongside Kaufmann was an outstanding team sporting spirit and excellence.

For those familiar with Dutch soprano Eva Marie Westbroek, her appearance alone would have been worth the ticket - her lush tone, expressive depth and character engagement superbly depicting a curious yet vulnerable Maddalena de Coigny. Both Kaufmann and Westbroek are no strangers to the roles, having shared the stage together in David McVicar’s production for Covent Garden. Their chemistry had spark. And then there was the huge pleasure to hear Frenchman Ludovic Tézier bursting forth with remarkably aligned text-to-voice interpretations with lashings of grand, smouldering baritone strength in the role of Carlo Gérard.

The three international imports formed the centrepiece of librettist Luigi Illica’s doomed love triangle loosely based on actual events - Chénier, a poet eventually sent to the guillotine for condemning the post-revolutionary government, Maddalena, a young women of the aristocracy who falls in love with Chénier and raises her hand to join him in death, and Gérard, a servant with romantic thoughts for Maddelena, in the employment of Contessa di Coigny, who turns to revolutionary politician.

Pinchas Steinberg, and Jonas Kaufmann 
First to impress, Tézier immediately established Gérard’s position in Act 1 as rankled servant denouncing the class system with thrusting conviction and simmering emotion in “Compiacente a' colloqui del cicisbeo . . . Son sessant'anni”. Every time Tézier stepped out, his singing was robust, fiercely intense and exhilarating to the ear, especially so in Act 3’s monumental aria, “Nemico della Patria” in which Gérard has a change of heart after intending to indict Chénier.

Westbroek was next, imbuing Maddelena’s light-hearted opening aria about the bothersome task women face in dressing up with creamy tones and delightful poise. Then on, Westbroek steered Maddelena through a trajectory that brought out the emotional furnace within, showcasing her vocal dexterity with utter ease and wrapping Act 3’s “La mamma morta” in an achingly glorious shroud of loss and hope as she sings to Gérard.

Portraying Chénier with an oft introspective demeanour, Kaufmann began with a seductive lyrical smoothness  followed by surging muscularity in Chénier’s notable Act 1 aria that criticises the aristocracy and authority, “Un dì all’azzurro spazio”. In Act 3’s “Sì fui soldato”, in which Chénier stands before the court, Kaufmann daringly took it all to a cliff edge in a stellar highlight as Chénier accepts death but asks that his honour be kept. Throughout, Kaufmann’s impeccable phrasing, register shifts, expansion of sound from pianissimo to forte and nuanced details added immensely to his performance. With Westbroek in duet, the pair strode a brilliant path as they declared their love in Act 2’s “Ora Soave” and the sheer energy and magnitude of their final declaration of “Viva la morte insiem!” (Long live death together!) brought the evening to a stunning conclusion.

There is no mistaking that the background of their characters’ story is painted with the turmoil of revolution in Giordano’s richly orchestrated music. The passions and volatility within it were demonstrated in compelling style by conductor Pinchas Steinberg who was both considered and earnest in his attention to the singers. Out of the pit and on the stage, the Opera Australia Orchestra looked a marvellous sight, playing with diligence and expertise a score that resonated with vibrancy and acoustic clarity.

From the solid ranks of regular Opera Australia artists, smaller roles were catered for handsomely. Dominica Matthews’ elegant mezzo-soprano and snobbish Contessa di Coigny, Luke Gabbedy’s authoritative baritone and soldierly Mathieu, Sian Sharp’s radiant mezzo-soprano and loyalty as Maddelena’s maid Bersi and Anna Dowsley’s heartbroken but patriotic old Madelon were particularly strong while Benjamin Rasheed’s spying The Incredible could have mustered greater sinisterly breadth. From the side galleries, the Opera Australia Chorus sang with gorgeously calibrated unity in an evening that goes down as the year’s operatic climax in the city.

I hope the outside sign-bearing individuals got a ticket. More so, with the 2020 season announcement fast approaching, I hope Opera Australia can march on forward with this kind of offering again.

Andrea Chénier in Concert
Opera Australia
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
13th August 2019

Production Photos: Keith Saunders (taken at the Sydney Opera House)

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Barrie Kosky's daring Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth Festival is controversial yet poignant, with the music having the final say: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight 31st July 2019

In Richard Wagner’s glorious celebration of being German in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Jewishness gets a beating and, in Barrie Kosky’s daring and inescapably controversial production at the Bayreuth Festival, Wagner is put on trial. It’s a juxtaposition and interpretation that zooms in on Wagner’s ideology on love, art and politics – which his work so completely embodied – to such an extent it makes Kosky’s 21st-century perspective not simply instructive, but shockingly poignant.

Kosky, who is Australian and of Jewish ancestry, never ignores the work’s mid-16th century setting of a song competition in which the prize is the hand in marriage to the young woman Eva, arranged by her father Veit Pogner. Kosky brings it to colourful and bucolic life in the hundreds of characters costumed in stunning Renaissance dress by Klaus Bruns. But he tells another story through Rebecca Ringst’s intelligently conceived set designs, beginning with the warm, wooden salon in Wagner’s Bayreuth oasis, Wahnfried. Then, there is Wagner on stage as the protagonist of the story, cobbler and mastersinger Hans Sachs. We also see Cosima Wagner as Eva and Franz Liszt (Cosima’s father) as Eva’s father Veit Pogner. More Wagner lookalikes appear. The young knight Walther, who is in love with Eva and she with him, is a younger Wagner.

Wagner-Sachs is the centre of prankish attention, both entertaining and annoying, in a room squeezed with the characters of a play-within-a-play, including the comic mastersingers who enter from under the piano lid. It’s when the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi enters – the man who conducted the premiere of Parsifal and was accused of having an affair with Cosima –that Wagner-Sachs’ tune changes. As he sets about humiliating him, you’re in no doubt this is the town clerk Beckmesser, the story’s derided character who can’t sing and has no hope in hell of snagging the beautiful Eva.

Kosky even seems to allow Act I’s comedy to wear thin in order to highlight a reason for the composer to eventually stand trial for his anti-Semitism. When Wahnfried is rolled rearward at the end of Act I, a large hall is revealed, a military officer stands guard and Wagner is alone. Act II unfolds around the piled up furnishings of Wagner’s salon and comes to a head -– quite literally an enormous inflated head of an evil-faced hooked-nose Jew with curls and skullcap ballooning on stage at the close of Act II. Beckmesser is beaten under a portrait of Wagner amongst the chaos that bursts forth in a horribly confronting act of discrimination.

Act III opens in the Nuremberg courtroom where the trials of those involved with the Third Reich famously took place. It was clear from the start that the dashing and instinctively creative Walther was going to win Eva but he could only do so with Hans Sachs’ help. In Act III, with the younger and older Wagner together – Walther getting an interactive lesson in mastersinging from Hans Sachs -– it’s as if the values and foundations of German artistic pride are being thrashed out. And later, when the various guilds enter the Nuremberg courtroom overflowing with townsfolk in a magnificently directed scene, that Germanness comes to an immense celebration before Beckmesser is laughed at and dragged off as Walther and Eva are blissfully united.

In this, his third consecutive appearance as Hans Sachs since the production premiered in 2017, German baritone Michael Volle more than demonstrated how well equipped he is to handle the mountainous demands of the role. Eccentric and moody, Volle’s Sachs imparts much about Wagner, he never fails to look the part and the eloquence, heft and flexibility of his instrument enlivens the text without any loss of stamina through to the end of almost four and a half hours of music drama.

Also reprising his role as Walther, German Klaus Florian Vogt’s exuberance, youthful sunny tenor and agility on stage perfectly suits the young Wagner. Vogt’s performance didn’t go without issue as the top of the voice showed strain by the third act, most likely due to having sung the title role of Lohengrin the night before. Pearlescent soprano Camilla Nylund is a graceful presence as Eva, convincing in the love she has for Walther and the respectable tenderness she bears the older Sachs. The trusty, old-oak bass of Günther Groissböck resonates large as a sympathetic Veit Pogner. Rich and creamy mezzo-soprano Wiebke Lehmkuhl impresses with strong musical sensibility as Eva’s maid Magdalene, as does warm tenor Daniel Behle’s genial David. Most moving of all is characterful German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle’s buffoon-like Beckmesser in once again withstanding the ridicule served on him to the extent that tears were shed for the injustice he receives.

The huge chorus of townsfolk do remarkable work with the action and comic gesturing that make up their parts. Vocally, they combine in beguiling precision to produce the finest pianissimos and majestic fortes with a range that utterly radiates. And leading the musical behemoth, conductor Philippe Jordan is back again with a persuasive account that shows obvious support for the singers and untiring awareness of carrying dramatic momentum.

Judge him as you like, but when the concluding splendiferous hymn to German art rings out, the courtroom has emptied, the walls have lifted and Sachs, as Wagner, begins to conduct an incoming raked stand of musicians and choristers, it’s a poignant and powerful moment that gives his music the firm and final say.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Bayreuth Festival
Until 27th August 2019

Production Photos: Enrico Nawrath

A wild, confronting and bittersweet Tannhäuser at Bayreuth Festival: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight, 31st July 2019

Between Wartburg Castle’s bastion of civilisation and the decadence that reigns in Venusberg, Wagner’s original 13th-century setting for Tannhäuser gets oodles of modern mileage in Bayreuth’s new 2019 production. In his house debut, director Tobias Kratzer brings inventive contemporary relevance to the work, rather eschewing the medieval moral rigidity – as well as any overt reference to the theme of redemption – and lays bare a bleak romantic thriller of fatal attraction. The problem is, it doesn’t consistently work with Wagner’s libretto. On the other hand, with no surtitles to draw attention to inconsistencies, Kratzer at the very least takes you on a wild, confronting and bittersweet ride in three acts you won’t easily forget.

Here, Venusberg is not a place but is simply the anarchic lifestyle Venus and some colourful misfits set upon. During the long, vividly sculptured overture, Kratzer draws his audience into something of a B-grade movie on the big screen. The minx-like Venus at the wheel of her quirky old van, a vivacious black drag queen, a dwarf and Tannhäuser, as a clown, are driving through the German countryside, a law unto themselves and thinking nothing of diddling Burger King out of a free meal and siphoning off petrol before Venus, in a panic, mows down a policeman. With just enough sanity to feel remorse, it’s Tannhäuser’s exit out of lawlessness. Any sense that this is about the nature of love is challenging to find, but in relation to the work’s interest in artistic freedom, Kratzer makes in-roads.

Tannhäuser ends up not at Wartburg Castle but outside the Festspielhaus, praising God as the well-heeled and highly privileged pass by to engage with opera on the Green Hill. Wolfram von Eschenbach and the Landgrave’s hunting party are singers who become part of Act II in a staid period production of the actual opera, with Tannhäuser returning to his career, in the title role naturally, alongside Elisabeth. In black and white video footage, Venus and her accomplices are shown to be in pursuit. They break into the theatre, Venus restraining a chorus woman and ending up on the actual stage in a hoot of a scene as the Minnesingers begin the contest on the nature of love, and she bears witness to the actual love Tannhäuser and Elisabeth share. Surprises follow, with the police showing up and arresting Tannhäuser after he presumably takes the blame for the hit-and-run depicted in the overture.

Between a gutsy Venus and emotionally spent Elisabeth, Tannhäuser comes across as unlikeable and lost, moving from one world to the other somewhat freely but never finding solace in either. The strength that comes from Kratzer’s vision for Elisabeth is that she, an artist herself but hopelessly distraught over Tannhäuser’s second absence – not on a pilgrimage to Rome but doing time in prison it appears – opens herself to inclusiveness while waiting for his return in Act III’s roadside junkyard. It comes too late. In her abjection, her career is over, she has sex with Wolfram, he having to don the clown suit, and out of sight she takes her life. A revolve reveal a black drag queen on a billboard as both icon and luxury brand, Le Gateau Chocolat, representing the artist as commercial success. Oskar, the sailor-suited drumming dwarf has lost his spark, Venus continues on her merry way and, though it’s not clear if he dies or not, Tannhäuser feels deep remorse again.

The final act, despite having produced the most impressive singing in what was an overall thrillingly sung opening night, feels conceptually restless. But while the glove doesn’t always fit Wagner’s medieval tale, the production jigs along with uncanny appeal to his mid-19th century score. Kratzer’s creative team of Rainer Sellmaier (sets and costumes), Manuel Braun (video) and Reinhard Traub (lighting) all contribute greatly to its overall execution. In his Bayreuth debut, Valery Gergiev conducts with such verve that at multiple turns it was like hearing the score anew.

Continuing his long association with Bayreuth that started in 2004 in the very same role of Tannhäuser, American Stephen Gould’s experience and potent heldentenor was in full evidence here. The big, molten centre of his chest voice conveyed much of the character’s soul, and although some of the high head notes he hit in the first act were uneven, Gould’s performance in the final act, particularly his wrenching Roman Narrative, was outstanding.

In her Bayreuth debut, Norwegian dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen brought exceptional crystalline vocal strength and emotional translucency to Elisabeth. Mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova, stepping in for Ekaterina Gubanova who injured herself during rehearsal, earned thunderous applause for her uber-lithe and feisty Venus, the voice pliant and assured, her top notes clear and penetrating.

Markus Eiche is superbly cast as Wolfram von Eschenbach, bringing complexity to the mix and singing with a burnished baritone sound of radiance. Eiche’s Act III Song to the Evening Star was of particular poignancy, an aria that hints at Elisabeth’s impending death and which was sung with post-coital tenderness. Hefty Danish bass Stephen Milling balanced authority and compassion as Landgraf Hermann, while  German actor Manni Laudenbach as Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat were rhythm and zest combined, indispensable to the production. The chorus too were convincing in acting and excellent in voice.

A final thought. In referencing a period-set Tannhäuser in his interpretation, Kratzer could also be alluding to the need for opera never to shy away from reinvention. That the Festspielhaus, dating back to 1876, has embraced change and is committed to presenting Wagner’s work in ever critical and creative ways is glowingly on show here. As part of this intrepid production, in a Festspielhaus first, Le Gateau Chocolat performed in the garden during the first interval alongside Manni Laudenbach’s Oskar beating his drum and Venus sorting her banners, bearing the words “Frei im Wollen, frei im Thun, frei im Geniessen” (Free in will, free in doing, free in enjoyment). You get the distinct feeling that Bayreuth not only takes its commitment seriously, it can do so with a good tongue-in-cheek look at itself.

Bayreuth Festival
Until 25th August 2019

Production Photos: Enrico Nawrath

Thursday, July 18, 2019

No tears for Graeme Murphy's bold approach in Opera Australia's new production of Madama Butterfly

Somewhere futuristic and far-fetched, a new and reimagined Madama Butterfly from Opera Australia has replaced the sensitively drawn floating world of abstracted tradition that so intrigued for more than 20 years from director Moffatt Oxenbould. For the company’s new investment in one of the repertoire’s most popular works, choreographer and director Graeme Murphy has dug deep, bringing sexual exploitation and sinisterness to the fore in the darkest Butterfly you’re likely to see. And of course, how could Murphy not resist bringing his choreographic nous to the stage? The problem was, I had later realised, that no tear was shed when Cio-Cio-San ceremoniously prepared herself for the knife’s fatal delivery as she farewells her three year-old son and dreams of her husband returning are shattered, only to find he does so with an American bride.

Are those tears of importance? I’ve never known a Butterfly in any other way. But the sum effect in Murphy’s production of often literal and symbolic use of text to bring storytelling alive in imagery on 10 lofty high-definition LED screens - as breathtaking as some of them are - and with no end of wild and puzzling effects, is often counterproductive, confusing, distracting and zaps the emotional heart of the work. Murphy does, however, find moments to expose the opera’s musical and vocal drama without hindrance, namely in Acts 2 and 3.

As if to wash one’s hands of allusions to the ignorances imbedded in Orientalism, America appears stuck in the 1960s while Japan is a highly advanced technological world light years ahead. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the concoction means. Pinkerton’s simple naval uniform, Sharpless’ light suit and Kate Pinkerton’s obvious reference to Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit are nothing on the daring culturally distilled and theatrical excesses of the Japanese world achieved in Jennifer Irwin’s amazing costumes.

While the first darting and beating bars of the music open, Murphy spreads the butterfly motif across the full width of the stage with a Cio-Cio-San double in red ropes of bondage as men writhe about in attempts to grope scantily clothed women above. Fair and square, Cio-Cio-San is a victim and pushed further, a strong sense of her objectification rings through. Assigned to her persona are brashness and gritty astuteness but it often feels at odds and forced.

The action is mostly concentrated on what looks like an oversized burner of a glass-top electric cooktop, raised and sprouting from the stage floor on a revolve and connected by a staircase as part of Michael Scott-Mitchell’s production design. At times it feels precarious and restricting but it provides a good platform for the voices to project while so much seems to be happening around it.

In too many instances, sumptuous soprano Mariana Hong’s powerful performance on Tuesday night was compromised by all this digital and visual indulgence but her Cio-Cio-San’s inner strength, spark and directness beamed. The top of the voice catapulted with splendour, her range delivering a wealth of expressivity and only the use of extended pianissimo missing opportunities to craft a greater sense of vulnerability. But Hong’s “Un bel di vedremo” was paced with convincing beauty, an impactful sound picture as the aria’s translated Japanese script bubbles out from around her then comes crashing to pieces, in one of the more skilful scenes, as the vision ends.

As Pinkerton, Diego Torre’s wonderfully passionate and voluminous tenor was put to expressive use, giving you that rare sense of sympathy for the spineless cheater Pinkerton is as he struggles with remorse. Together with Hong, the voices shared penetrating soul in Act 1’s duet of private post-nuptial tenderness but why on earth were a male and female dancer projected large on a scrim in front of them? Mezzo-soprano Agnes Sarkis’ strident vocal display as a strong-headed and loyal Suzuki matched well with Hong’s resolve. Warmth and compassion oozed from smooth baritone José Carbó in distinguished style as the Consul Sharpless and Virgilio Marino, robust in voice and mixing amiability and slyness in equal parts as Goro, was impressive. It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the Opera Australia Chorus but the “Humming Chorus” wafted dreamily en pointe despite another scene that raised question marks, created as a dream sequence Cio-Cio-San walks through.

Fortunately, the score’s delicacy, lyricism and drama fluoresced under conductor Nicholas Milton’s lead, the strings in particular responding with alertness and character and the attack on key dramatic moments delivered with heartfelt playing.

It’s a show of dazzling turns and ideas that eventually exhaust. Nevertheless, I want to witness this Madama Butterfly again, to give it another chance and see if I can derive something more, even without demanding tears, from its bold approach.

Madama Butterfly 
Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 10th August, 2019

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A new Australian opera magnifies the life of an artist in composer Elena Kats-Chernin's Whiteley for Opera Australia

In celebrated Australian artist Brett Whiteley’s output, a voluptuous sense of line, a panoramic sense of space and an often vivid but restful sense of colour combine in an unmistakably identifiable mood that characterises his work. But behind the art, addiction never went away. You’re either heading away from it or heading towards it as Whiteley lays bare in Opera Australia’s newly commissioned work, Whiteley. Dead at 53 in 1992 from an opiate overdose, his tumultuous life was exactly the kind of story that opera could magnify.

Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley
A purely biographical angle, however, would never have worked. Substance was required to fuel a drama and give something to cling to its characters. Teaming together, Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin and librettist Justin Fleming combine both in a work that initially struggles to find a footing but eventually rises with insight to rewarding heights. 

Kats-Chernin, a bowerbird of sorts who decorates the pit with a staggering assortment of finery to allure her listener, has constructed a richly textured score incorporating her ingenious orchestral knack for melodious, imposing and meandering soundscapes. Her music holds the life-story together as Fleming’s text moves between raw conversational and somewhat forced poeticism, including a little humour and oft-esoteric rumination on art and existence which Whiteley raises and challenges as he looks for the answers in a drug and alcohol-sozzled and zoned-out state. 

Those dark scenes, as Whiteley oscillates between reality and precipice, are perhaps only a veneer on the work’s raison d’être. What Fleming attempts to portray is the contrasting ‘ways of seeing’ between Whiteley and his wife Wendy, he setting up an argument with nature, while she wishes to commune with it. Most of all this lifts off in Act 2 and the more Whiteley collapses into bouts of delusion, the more his wife Wendy finds strength and tranquility. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition that sets up a poignant finale in which Whiteley’s lone death is followed by a mother’s pain and a calming, ethereal trio of mother, Wendy and daughter Arkie giving rest to his soul and purpose to his legacy. 

Julie Lea Goodwin as Wendy and Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley
It leaves Act 1’s swiftly moving scenes from childhood through to his expulsion from Fiji with Wendy and Arkie, feeling somewhat dramatically undernourished. Along the way much is packed in - Whiteley’s first meeting with Wendy, his move to London, the voices of critics and his unforgettable meeting with the Queen, the move to New York and onto Fiji, the art prizes and the demon of addiction he shares with mentors Charles Baudelaire, Piero della Francesca and Francis Bacon, the later move to Sydney, the partying and extramarital affairs just some of the chronological line of scenes.

David Freeman’s direction cuts to the chase in well-resolved vignettes that serve as best they can in the shortcomings of some of the libretto’s touched-upon events. There is lots to take in on its overloaded sequence but, utilising high-definition LED screens that slide in and out vertically and horizontally depicting art and context, Dan Potra’s visual design delivers marvellously in breadth and imagination with Sean Nieuwenhuis’s video work and John Rayment’s lighting. 

In the title role, living life riskily under a curly mop of sunny hair, English tenor Leigh Melrose gave opening night a performance of riveting driven intent and flexing muscled voice. In declamatory, tender, fierce and reflective mode, Melrose shaped the multi-dimensional Whiteley to compelling effect and never lost sight of the challenges.

Leigh Melrose in the title role and cast of Opera Australia's Whiteley
Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin was equally effective as Wendy, giving penetrating strength and lustrous meaningful voice to her part in portraying the uneasy but indisputable bonds and contrasting ideology with Whiteley. As daughter Arkie, soprano Kate Amos sung with radiance and acuity, growing up and growing concerned about her father’s condition, serving up one of the most emotional highlights as she shares time with Melrose’s Whiteley as he attempts to shake his drug dependency in a white-light Japanese Zen garden.

Natasha Green sang with delicacy as the younger Arkie. Mezzo-soprano Dominica Matthews was suitably and superbly plush in voice as stalwart mother, Beryl Whiteley, and a long list of cameo roles were sung with vigour, notably Nicholas Jones’ Michael Driscoll, Gregory Brown’s Patrick White, Richard Anderson’s Joel Elenberg and Angela Hogan’s Janice Spencer.

Kats-Chernin’s score goes a long way in marrying the turbulence, persona and celebrations in Whiteley’s life to music and conductor Tahu Matheson actualises it with particular verve and beauty, leading the Opera Australia Orchestra in strong form. But by the time Whiteley comes to its tranquil close, curiously revealing and evocative as the work can be, amongst all the shoe-horned storytelling, there seem to be gaps that could do with either removal or filling. 

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 30th July, 2019

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Sondheim's A Little Night Music enchants in a delectably sung and buoyantly told portrayal from Victorian Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun in print, Tuesday 2nd July 2019.

With A Little Night Music, Victorian Opera’s latest plunge into the works of Stephen Sondheim is bound to bring joy to fans and newcomers of Broadway’s master of music’s marriage with text. Once again under Stuart Maunder’s astute direction, a story that swills the nitty gritty of human relationships is buoyantly told in a delectably sung and enchantingly portrayed drama.

The cast of Victorian Opera's A Little Night Music
In the manner of Oscar Wilde’s sharp witted humour, Sondheim’s inventive lyrics effortlessly reflect the sophistication that resides in Hugh Wheeler’s book. 

The action takes place in a privileged corner of Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century where expectations of propriety are instantly shattered. Middle-aged lawyer Fredrik has married Anne, a young woman 30 years his junior but, 11 months into the marriage, she remains a virgin. When he meets an old flame, the glamorous actress Desirée, what ensues is a centrifugally drawn cast of characters whose entanglement exposes everything from sexual tension, desire, frustration, jealously and repression. 

It’s all superbly illuminated in a creamily whisked up melodic affair written predominantly in waltz meter while along the way, hearts are broken, romance takes flight and love is renewed. 

Simon Gleeson as Fredrik and Elisa Colla as Anne
Musically, the ambience is perfectly paced in conductor Phoebe Briggs command, if at times the verve and swirl of the orchestration isn’t milked.

A revolve is deftly utilised to segue scenes as layers of gauze curtains waft in and out in Roger Kirk’s ornately slick stage design. Sumptuous and summery period costumes are captured with beauty under Trudy Dalgleish’s subdued lighting and within this dreamy picture, the large en-pointe ensemble are utterly radiant. 

Ali McGregor channels emotive truth and charm as the vivacious Desirée, singing the works standout musical number, “Send In the Clowns”, like it was written for her. Empathy and self-realisation rise through the cracks in Simon Gleeson’s suave and stylish Fredrik and Elisa Colla sparkles as a complex creature of coquettish and coy sorts as Anne.

Everyone is a flawless fit with Verity Hunt-Ballard’s trenchant Charlotte, Samuel Dundas as her husband’s dissolute Carl-Magnus and Alinta Chindzey’s pert Petra ahead of the excellence while a quintet of commentators elegantly navigate harmony and dance. 

A Little Night Music
Victorian Opera
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 6th July, 2019


Production Photos: 

Monday, July 15, 2019

A generous slice of rarer bel canto heaven may promise more to come - Victorian Opera's Heroic Bel Canto soars high

Reams of ravishing Rossini, dollops of Donizetti and just a bit of Bellini - Victorian Opera have brought together three of the greatest exponents of music written for voices that require superhuman technique and dashing expression in a one night only concert, Heroic Bel Canto. The night proved to be altogether devastatingly heroic, seductive and meteoric.

Daniella Barcellona and Jessica Pratt
After four consecutive years of concert opera featuring four of Bellini’s most acclaimed works (Norma, I puritani, La sonnambula and I Capuleti e i Montecchi), a deliciously crafted program of lesser performed arias, duets and ensembles in praise of the art of bel canto spun its dazzling charms from go to whoa.

Included were excerpts from Rossini’s final Italian opera, the tragedy Semiramide, the infectiously comic work, Le Comte Ory and the rarely performed biblical opera, Ciro in Babilonia. And included from Donizetti’s copious output was a taste of the three-act operatic melodrama, Linda di Chamounix that, crossing fingers, will see its Australian premiere soon.

No stranger to these ornamental gems and heading the program was the divine vocal beauty of soprano Jessica Pratt along with new-to-local-audiences, Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. Local tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas completed the headline trio, a singer who has certainly yielded heroic results in recent principal roles for Victorian Opera. A contingent of solid local performers and VO associate artists rose to the occasion splendidly.

Thanks to Artistic Director and the evening’s conductor Richard Mills, it was one of those evenings when you felt you were indeed a part of their family. Mills embraced his audience with witty and informative introductions, some a little on overtime but all delivered with passionate excitement. And perhaps a tease? Who else became convinced one or more of these Rossini works are on the company’s future list?

Daniella Barcellona, Jessica Pratt
and Carlos E. Bárcenas
Poised and glamorous, Pratt sung with eloquently ornamented and indelibly phrased beauty. ‘O luce di quest’ anima’ from Linda di Chamounix, an aria gifted to stars, came down from the heavens in an utterly stunning interpretation of perilous high flying notes, pure toned smoothness and darting flexibility. And when it was over, it was like coming out from being under her spell.

Daniela Barcellona, sturdy and plush, animated her performance superbly, her gesturing hands and vivacious expression doing as much convincing work as her increasingly beguiling vocal magnitude. For the agonised Leonora in ‘O mon Fernand’ from Donizetti’s La Favorite, Barcellona exposed the aria’s dramatic interior and great beauty in a concert highlight. In duet with Pratt, Semiramide’s ‘Ebben a te ferisci’ became a poignant, emotionally transparent and supercharged drama.

Tenor Bárcenas keeps on impressing, the chest opening up with warm, muscled strength, the top radiant and soaring, if only momentarily tight, and the bottom of the voice was sounding evermore rich and striking in an especially fine rendition of ‘Deserto in terra’ from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano.

A singer with a tantalising future, oaky baritone Stephen Marsh sang with great command and pristine diction alongside Barcellona in ‘Ai capricci della sorte’ from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, the chemistry magnetic, the voices in comfortable harmony. One short aria, ‘Chi disprezza gl’infelici’ from Ciro in Babilonia, came with instant appeal from lush mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan who brought to it a slice of smoothly drafted magic.

Daniela Barcellona and Stephen Marsh
And when they were joined by soprano Kathryn Radcliffe, baritones Samuel Piper, Nathan Lay and Raphael Wong and bass-baritone Matthew Thomas in the penultimate piece, a lively and agilely sung display of ‘Livorno, dieci Aprile’ from Donizetti’s farcical Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrale, Victorian Opera seemed to be saying, “We have no trouble in guaranteeing you the goods!” Following, the rapturous trio and finale of ‘A la faveur de cette nuit obscure’ from Le Comte d'Ory made it ever so clearer.

And Happy 50th Birthday to one of the city’s indispensable cultural assets, Orchestra Victoria. Playing with great unity and serving up generous textures, the team supported the artists with familial-like care. Opening the first part, the overture to Semiramide suffered from a mild amount of tarnished brass but the thrusting overture to Bellini’s Norma that opened the second part of the program was a showcase of richness and sensitivity. In other areas, principal flautist Lisa-Maree Amos and Sally Walker on piccolo deserve special mention for carrying the woodwinds on exceptional flights of artistry and concertmaster Yi Wang led the way on violins that perfectly synchronised and delighted in their pizzicato expression.

So which will be the first to get fully staged treatment? Semiramide, Le Comte d’Ory or Linda di Chamounix? I’ll take a stab in the dark with Semiramide, one of Dame Joan Sutherland’s most thrillingly sung roles and one that Pratt would easily enamour local audiences with who have come to know her commitment and style. Then again, Melbourne Opera may very well pip them at the post.

Heroic Bel Canto
Victorian Opera
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
14th July, 2019

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Sunday, June 23, 2019

More than a tale of love and sacrifice, director David McVicar's Rusalka emphasises a universal tragedy at San Francisco Opera

I had often approached Rusalka with a degree of scepticism. When I see it, I’m always reminded of the spell it must have spun. It was the first opera I saw - an English National Opera production back in 1984. Only a fragmented memory of that evening remains although I remember nodding off along the way in those head dropping moments that instantly wake you back up. For whatever reason, I haven’t stopped going to see opera ever since. In San Francisco Opera’s new production, originally directed by David McVicar for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014 and seen here under revival director Leah Hausman, the spell has been recast with such potency in a magnificent and mystical staging that I was on my feet, converted forever and swimming in the depths of its various themes. Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s evocative work has found in McVicar’s brave and visionary concept a perfectly harmonised home.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka
In Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto, drawn from various near and distant sources from folklore and fairy tales, the Slavic mythological 'rusalka' - a water nymph who inhabits rivers and lakes - is the subject of a story that inspired and is most recognisable in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s lesser known Undine. At its core, Rusalka is a turbulent tale of love and sacrifice but other themes abound in this saddening fairy tale about a water nymph who falls for a prince and risks everything to become mortal in order to attain his love.

McVicar delves deeper than the depths of Rusalka’s watery abode, diving beyond emotional tribulations and casting a concept in a contrasting and haunting inky-hued and silvery form that puts man in conflict with nature. Kvapil’s libretto alludes to this interpretation. With it, a dark fairytale is turned into a universal tragedy. From the sides of the stage, the presence of a massive retaining wall demands curiosity, its infrastructural intrusion on the moonlit, leafless wooded landscape rendering the natural beauty of Rusalka’s lake a murky marshy habit. Even the forest nymphs, who dance about inelegantly as depraved creatures in soiled attire, appear stained by man’s progress.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka and
Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince
The prince is a huntsman, his animal kill covering the palace ballroom - a startlingly beautiful panelled and trussed medieval hall - in exaggerated, informative intent. In the kitchen too, before the grand ball, emphasis on man’s barbarism against the natural world is portrayed with cuts of bloody hanging meat and, comic as it appears, the kitchen hand’s turkey gutting and stuffing is a grossly forced act. And then it dawned on me that during the overture’s dramatic swing, the prince raises his hand in a gesture of longing and loss to an impressive large-scaled painting of Rusalka’s realm in which he will be drawn back to. A longing for Rusalka? In retrospect, that gesture symbolises humanity’s shame for the catastrophe imposed on nature that cannot be undone. For its three-act entirety, the work is given superlative visual allure and stimulation from McVicar’s creative team (sets by John Macfarlane, costumes by Moritz Junge and lighting by David Finn).

Musically and vocally, too, it is carried off with highly impressive results. Within Dvořák’s lush orchestration there’s a whiff of Wagner, a sense of Strauss and a touch of Tchaikovsky among his influences and conductor Eun Sun Kim, in her company debut, captures the darkness, the gossamer-like, the bombastic and mystery of the score with elan.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka and Jamie Barton as Ježibaba
American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Rusalka is a breathtaking display of stirring vocal power against the agonised hopelessness she has finding happiness in neither a watery world nor that of the prince’s. Intrinsically an embodiment of nature, lithe and melancholic, Willis-Sørensen garners sympathy for Rusalka’s plight as much as displeasure in watching her desperation for love directed to a misogynistically portrayed prince. In both lyrical and dramatic splendour, the top of the voice gleams while the dark undercurrents of the low range stream without hindrance. Act 1’s celebrated aria, “Song to the Moon” is beguiling, the vocal artistry and effect in Willis-Sorensen’s command setting a quivering trepidation in motion, alongside her invocation to the moon to shine its light and her being on the prince, that pitifully verges on prescience.

Imposing stentorian American tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s Prince is handsomely distinguished and utterly unlikeable. For a man who sees Rusalka as a trophy of the hunt, every kiss comes with an ugly force that signifies mans assault on nature and Jovanovich’s vocal muscularity and compelling acting suited the role perfectly. The fabulously rich and striking resonance of Canadian soprano Sarah Cambidge plants determination and jealousy with ease on the Foreign Princess. Surrounded by her fine trio of sinister flapping and pecking crows, American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has no trouble combining a smug and menacing Ježibaba with mountains of smouldering vocal contortions as a seemingly embattled protector of nature.

Sarah Cambidge as the Foreign Princess
As Rusalka’s father, the water goblin Vodník, Icelandic Kristinn Sigmundsson’s hefty bass and nuanced acting strike a strong relationship with fatherly duties and nature’s seeming cautioning-like indicator. Smaller roles are strongly filled with mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm as the kitchen hand and bass-baritone Philip Horst as the gamekeeper and Natalie Image, Simone McIntosh and Ashley Dixon harmonise delightfully as the wood nymphs over music that surrounds them in a most Wagnerian manner.

When the tale reaches the finale, an aching sense of remorse peels out across the landscape and there seems hope for the natural world. Under the spell of its visually dark and enticing complexity, luscious orchestral tapestry and splendid vocal ardency, you find it’s easy to understand seeing it just once is not enough for some besotted opera goers.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 28th June, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Psycho-drama meets soap opera in director Harry Fehr's juicy adaptation of Handel's Orlando at San Francisco Opera

Baroque opera has had the good fortune of finding itself in excitingly refreshed form over the last few decades. As it stands, so accustomed are we at having a director come along and upheave original settings with an ideas-rich adaptation designed to shed contemporary light on the source material, that it could make you feel that turning back the clock to match ‘period’ interpretations seems rather ordinary and unproductive. San Francisco Opera’s Orlando, from British director Harry Fehr, boldly takes the more modernised approach and it fits like a glove on Handel’s opera almost 300 years on.

Sasha Cooke (centre) as Orlando and Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro 
First performed at London’s King’s Theatre in 1731, Orlando was the first of three masterworks of ‘opera seria’ Handel composed based in part on Ludovico Ariosto’s Italian epic poem, Orlando Furioso - Alcina and Ariodante followed in 1735. From a medieval tale surrounding a knight, an African prince, the Queen of Cathay, a shepherdess and a magician, Fehr gives us, two military fellows, a wealthy American beauty, a nurse and a shrink and whirls the plot into a gleaming sterile psychiatric facility during WWII London. It’s an ingenious and juicy adaptation, always forward moving, that has the air of a psycho-drama caught in several episodes of a soap opera - thoughts of Stanley Kubrick’s horror film The Shining and daytime television medical drama General Hospital popped in and out of mind. Importantly, Fehr never fails to bring lucent, believable form to context and characters.

In fine soap opera form, the plot turns like a rotisserie. Mighty RAF officer Orlando (Sasha Cooke) is undergoing therapy with the hope of returning to the front. He’s in love with the wealthy Angelica (Heidi Stober). She has met and fallen in love with Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen), a convalescing soldier. He loves her too but has to deflect advances from their attending nurse, Dorinda (Christina Gansch). A quite creepy Zoroastro (Christian Van Horn) heads the facility with a trick or two up his sleeve - nothing more confronting than a few rounds of electroshock therapy - that will restore Orlando’s sanity after he suffers a bout of jealousy and madness when he realises Angelica may not be his for the taking.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro 
Fehr makes it all very easy to get dragged along with the ride on which love is seemingly at war with love. Amazingly, his entire vision sits comfortably with the libretto, adapted anonymously from Carlo Sigismondo Capece’s L’Orlando. Any talk of ‘place’ - a more nature-filled setting of mountains, caves, forests and groves in Handel’s work - comes across as Fehr’s setting’s wider outside world. And references to the gods Venus, Mars and the like never appear lofty.

Yannis Thavoris’ slick streamlined design, based on London’s 1930s Royal Masonic Hospital and treatment centre for WWII servicemen, pivots from examination room to hospital ward, reception and corridors with ease. Medical, military and civilian costumes are tastefully matched and Anna Watson’s original lighting design casts both the drama at point and the artificiality of the interior. Projections by Andrzej Goulding flash across the lengthy opaque glass walls whenever we’re supposed to see what Orlando might be thinking but they do more to detract than involve. Just one moment succeeds when Orlando undergoes electroshock therapy and the wall explodes with imagery. The only other drawback comes with its smallish, oft-felt shoebox proportions within the grand height of the War Memorial Opera House’s proscenium. That the production was designed for the smaller Theatre Royal in Glasgow for the Scottish National Opera when it premiered in 2011 shows.

Christina Gansch as Dorinda, Heidi Stober as Angelica
 and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro 
There’s lots to navigate for the cast too with Fehr keeping the action alive and the facility buzzing with activity. All five soloists, in a role debut, act with heart and intention. But Cooke doesn’t give the title role the heft and committed expressive hue it requires for one that demands a lower-lying voice despite her appealing plush mezzo-soprano tone and vocal flexibility. Act 2’s final moments, when the sound of bombs falling and exploding outside accompanies Orlando’s painful delirium, the scene sags to a dismal end, just when you long for the explosiveness in the voice. Cooke can take coloratura through ravishing flight and it’s not as if the means aren’t there to project either. On several occasions Cooke ups the amp output in surprising but odd bursts of vigour.

But there’s no shortage of Handel’s beautiful and memorable music, awash from start to end across the almost three and a half hour evening. On splendid show around Orlando, countertenor and current Adler Fellow Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen gives the mid-opera aria, “Verdi allori”, a notable, melting centrepiece. His Medoro is charming and suitably reserved as he denies romantic associations with Angelica, the voice projecting confidently with a radiant milk and honey tone that will go onto many a world stage.

Sasha Cooke as Orlando and Christian Van Horn as Zoroastro 
As the glamorous Angelica, Stober’s elegant and plush soprano demonstrates both her wide-ranging and equally expressive instrument, presenting her contrasting emotional responses before Orlando and Medoro in one compelling scene after another. In authoritative clinical fashion, Van Horn’s magnificent and sonorous, shard-formed bass-baritone covers mountainous ground giving Zoroastro formidable presence and oft-dubious wisdom. In his service, the loveable nurse Dorinda is portrayed with startling five-star pizzazz by Austrian soprano Christina Gansch in her company and United States debut. In streams of pure and polished penetrating voice, Gansch brings bittersweet comic three-dimensionality to a woman who embodies the conundrum of not being able to separate truth from feeling, culminating in the knockout Act 3 aria, “Amore è qual vento” as she reflects on the turbulence that lurks in love’s grip.

In this Wednesday evening performance, warmth, opulence and resonance emanated from the pit under English conductor Christopher Moulds in his company debut. Overall, however, signature baroque regality presided where room for dynamism could have been made. Nevertheless, instrumental exchanges were executed with vivacity courtesy of smooth and solid playing by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra - Act 3’s orchestral opening dished out some impressive wafer-like woodwind work.

Fehr’s creation gives a modern audience a hugely satsfying resolution of Handel’s Orlando and he might make you wonder what happens in the next episodes of Ariosto’s sprawling Orlando Furioso in its various operatic forms. Will this absorbing WWII series be continued?

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 27th June, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, June 16, 2019

An opera-informative and sharp-looking new work from Victorian Opera with Alice Through the Opera Glass

In my time, I’ve seen a good few kiddie-orientated opera works, although none ever experienced during childhood. Now, one of the most rewarding aspects of seeing them is watching and revelling in the way young folk respond with unfiltered gusto, riveted by the magic of music and theatre.

Timothy Reynolds as White Rabbit and Georgia Wilkinson as Alice
These days Victorian kids have the good fortune of catching the magic with both Opera Australia’s Schools Company and Victorian Opera’s ongoing commitment to educating children in the art of opera and presenting them with increasingly sophisticated results. In recent years, the company’s grand decision to stage Ernst Toch’s The Princess and the Pea, a short work composed in 1927, especially stood out for its creative nouse and vibrant storytelling when it was staged in 2017.

On Saturday, in a three-show day of Alice Through the Opera Glass, the company took another leap forward with a sharp-looking show, touched with an imaginatively written opera-informative one-hour piece, sprinkled with delightful humour and fun adventures. The proof was an audience of kids literally on the edge of their seats drawn to the wonder of some seriously awesome and uncompromising singing.

In Emma Muir-Smith’s appealing and concise libretto, one of literature’s most widely recognised and oft-interpreted characters comes to life in a sort of Alice in Wonderland meets The Magic Flute in a chess game of Operaland where they meet the world of opera through a blend of well-selected works and learn something of its enchantment on the way.

Emily Burke as Elettra and Chorus
(Students from the University of Melbourne)
Alice and White Rabbit stumble on a flute with a note attached saying it belongs to the Queen of the Night. White Rabbit brags about being able to play it but, after he blows a tune, Alice sees a second message written on the back that refers to a curse that, should the flute be played, can only be reversed if it is returned to the queen within the hour. Too late. White Rabbit has been turned into the Mad Hatter. What ensues is a dash to “reverse the curse” and a journey that might very well be the envy of any adventurous young soul.

Struck by a virus (which wasn’t intentionally part of the curse), young soprano Georgia Wilkinson acted and spoke the part as an endearing, genial and intrepid Alice. Wilkinson did a sterling job of taking command and demonstrating unconditionally Alice’s concern for White Rabbit as Kathryn Radcliffe sang the role with lushness and purity from offstage in a “secret” location. My guess is that Radcliffe sang from the pit, her voice sailing high and gloriously from below alongside Shakira Dugan’s divinely sung Mallika - an exotic garden-loving character they meet in Operaland - in the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakmé.

Timothy Reynolds picked up the chuckles effortlessly with his comic, flappable and nervy portrayal of the long-eared adorable White Rabbit. The adventurers go on to meet the mermaid Elettra, to whom Emily Burke gave hearty good notes and hip-as moves as part of a dreamy chorus rendition of Mozart’s “Voyager’s Chorus” from Idomeneo - students from the University of Melbourne sang with gorgeous undulating harmony as if their grades depended on it. Reynolds’ warm, lyrical tenor brought later cheer with “A Wand’ring Minstrel, I” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and a jaunty “Hm! hm! hm! hm!” quintet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute brought new friends together before dealings were to be had with a stern Esther Counsel as Queen of the Night.

Stephen Marsh and Carlos E. Bárcenas
But the most thrilling singing came from Carlos E. Bárcenas and Stephen Marsh, star turns as Alfredo and Papageno. Bárcenas’ swooning “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” from Verdi’s La traviata carried oodles of sensitivity and radiance, more than enough to dream of singing like that when you grow up. The two friends share a stellar moment in, naturally, “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s The Pearlfishers before Marsh took out the finale with a splendidly exhilarating “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen as the Queen of the Night bends in a final act of lenience after Alice and White Rabbit arrive 10 minutes late.

It was all tied together entertainingly with Brock Roberts’ lively and pacy direction and a punchy design scheme that made the most of simplicity. Candice MacAllister’s playful set design provided adequate room for movement and a little dance, coming up a treat under Peter Darby’s thoughtful lighting and Isaac Lummis’ inventive costumes which were a particularly striking affair of detail, colour and character.

The pit was a pleasant and abundant source of fine supporting music from the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra under conductor Simon Bruckard’s more lucently decorated than forceful and dramatic interpretation of some of the more familiar opera tunes. In the end, perhaps the only couple of things that felt missing were a duet or two for Alice and White Rabbit and some vocal ferocity from the Queen of the Night. Otherwise, there’s a thoroughly engaging show that some lucky Victorian children will be singing about for a long time.

Alice Through the Opera Glass 
Victorian Opera
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Saturday 15th June, 2019

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Friday, June 14, 2019

A translucent, introspectively drawn drama resonates with beauty in Pinchgut Opera's The Return of Ulysses in Sydney

Pause. And think about this. You’re experiencing live a nearly 400 year old music drama based on the second oldest extant work of Western literature. Outside, there’s a maddening world in which humankind’s progress is vividly on show but in which there is never respite from struggle. All of a sudden, Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses, based on the second part of Homer’s Ancient Greek epic poem, Odyssey, becomes a savoury slice of arabesque sermonising in which virtue and constancy ultimately triumph over villainy and greed.

Fernando Guimarães as Ulysses and Brenton Spiteri as Telemaco
Pinchgut Opera, aglow after winning the recent International Opera Award for Best Rediscovered Work for last season’s Artaserse and employing its director Chas Rader-Shieber once again, have breathed expression and vitality into Monteverdi’s work in signature class while overcoming any hint of it being a dusty irrelevant museum piece.

The story recounts Ulysses’ long journey home to Ithaca 10 years after the end of the Trojan Wars, aided by the reasoning gods, his son Telemaco and his friend Eumete to his unerringly faithful queen, Penelope. It’s equally Penelope’s story as she longs for Ulysses, is harassed by three persistent suitors but is eventually rewarded with his return, arriving as an old disguised vagabond who strings Ulysses’ bow after she promises to marry the suitor who can do so.

On paper, bringing in 22 characters from mortals to gods, it might seem convoluted but Rader-Shieber polishes the slow-cooking drama with an eye on intimacy and a deftness at extracting unflagging emotional coherence from Giacomo Badoaro’s poetic libretto. Simple, thought provoking and effective, Melanie Liertz’s set and costumes support the narrative tastefully with what appears era-crossing aesthetics. A 12-metre high arcing gauze curtain that occasionally opens separates a celestial background space and an earth-bound foreground with Nicholas Rayment’s lighting adding subtle beauty to its stream of compact scenes.

Nicholas Tolputt, Douglas Kelly and Wade Kernot as the three suitors
and Catherine Carby as Penelope
So why might a cast of 10 who double and triple in 22 roles first appear half-dressed in white and ivory baroque underclothes before the Prologue gets underway? Perhaps they’re a troupe of performers readying themselves for the theatre. Artistic Director and conductor Erin Helyard is amongst them too, before stepping out to join his musicians of the Orchestra of the Antipodes who are similarly attired in a statement that, as one, music and drama are fused. Tellingly, Penelope steps out of the role of Human Frailty and becomes clothed in a dark regal gown. Ulysses becomes both coated military man and bedraggled beggar. But, when the couple rejoice in their reunion, they are stripped backed to basics in a sign that it is virtue, not clothes, that maketh the man. As part of this clever costume-play, in which characters are easily identifiable, the three wealthy unscrupulous suitors are fittingly top-hatted and trouser-less.

Musically, mood and colour shifts and variations rise in generous relief under Helyard’s exacting standards in front of an orchestra providing unwavering expertise. Then there is that inexplicable feeling when line after line of arioso begins to feel as fresh and edgy as modern music. The last time I saw this work, at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2015, I’m afraid Monteverdi sagged and lumbered through Act One. But Helyard’s infusion of energy, a strong sense of drama in direction and a wholly committed cast present The Return of Ulysses with appealing translucency. My only qualm is turning  Monteverdi’s prologue and three acts into a two-part evening in which a 100-minute first part is packed to overflow.

Jacob Lawrence as Giove
Muscular Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães sings with spontaneous-like realism and conviction in the title role. In a marvellous and uniquely crafted marriage of text and musicality, Guimarães insightful interpretation leaves no doubt that Ulysses’ burdens are as pressing as his determination is heroic. When Minerva appears, informing Ulysses that Penelope has remained steadfastly faithful, the response comes with electric, fluidly sung joy that sets up a heartfelt reunion in the final act. Along the way, in one of the most melting highlights, Guimarães equally displays jubilance in his warm and tender reunion with his son Telemaco, who tenor Brenton Spiteri embodies with youthful bravery and a vibrant, luminous tone while brilliantly capturing an underlying sense of adventurous spirit and sincerity in his character.

And how fortunate it is to have Catherine Carby’s plush mezzo-soprano full of dark and dolorous colours give Penelope so much imposing stature and rippling sensitivity. Throughout Act One’s long opening passage of lamentation, “Di misera regina”, Carby unswervingly took command of a character in hopeless grief, her calmly postured Penelope leaning further and further into headstrong territory and sung with intoxicating magnetic strength. To the end, Carby’s smashing lower register, rich middle-range and refined top sculpted a character-rich portrayal and, together with Guimarães’ Ulysses, the drama’s most convincing characters were drawn.

Tenor Jacob Lawrence is a notable mention, giving both Giove and Eumete strong and assured presence in radiant and resonant form. The flamboyant and gluttonous Iro is comically mastered in robust voice by tenor Mark Wilde. Sparkling soprano Roberta Diamond and bold tenor Douglas Kelly share a wonderfully relaxed and lusty chemistry as the lovers Melanto and Eurimaco.

Mark Wilde  as Iro
Diamond’s bouncy Amore and assured Giunone, as the goddess who persuades Giove and Nettune that Ulisse should be restored to the throne, are similarly admirable. Kelly joins sturdy pure-toned countertenor Nicholas Tolputt and hefty bass Wade Kernot in bringing their botanical analogies of love’s necessity to the table as the grovelling slimy suitors in luxuriant harmony and bright and golden soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell is matched beautifully to the voices of Fortuna, Ericlea and a notably warm and enticing Minerva.

In the centuries that have passed, it might be easy to assume that humankind thinks differently on many levels. But in the oft gentle introspective ambience of The Return of Ulysses, you’ll discover a commonality that may surprise.

The Return of Ulysses
Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 19th June, 2019

Production Photos: Brett Boardman