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

Friday, May 31, 2019

A Rossini rarity, Il Viaggio a Reims, exhibits itself as an exuberant modern masterpiece for Opera Australia in Melbourne

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun and online 28th May 2019

Rossini never intended Il Viaggio a Reims to journey beyond a few performances. Commissioned to mark the coronation of French King Charles X in Reims in 1825, it wasn’t until 1984 that its once fragmented score was heard complete for the first time. What could have remained lost is a beguiling triumph of music plump with Rossini’s magical gift for melody and lush ornamentation.

The cast of Opera Australia's Il Viaggio a Reims
Hugely demanding it is too, for the 17 soloists it requires and the company that takes up its challenges. Rising to the occasion, however, Opera Australia’s new production makes it an exuberant modern masterpiece.

Damiano Michieletto, director of OA’s recent ingeniously devised Cav/Pag, returns with an equally inventive angle on Rossini’s work concerning a menagerie of characters travelling to Reims for the coronation festivities.

Mining the eccentricity in the original, Michieletto gives the characters new identities and moves the action from a spa hotel to a white-walled modernist art gallery. Characters reside in the real world, a picture world or, what generates much comic interplay, both.

Masterpieces worth millions come to life - a Van Gogh, Magritte, Botero and Goya among them, including a Keith Haring dancing man. Michieletto seems to imply that the world we look at in art can be transformational, that art mimics life and, as he so charmingly presents it, vice-versa. It’s a tongue-in-cheek take on Charles X's big day that leads to a spectacular conclusion you eventually see coming - no spoiler here.

Sian Sharp as Marchesa Melibea and Shanul Sharma as Conte di Libenskof 
In a long list of compelling performances, radiant Rossini-fit young tenor and newish to the ranks of OA, Shanul Sharma’s passionate Libenskof deserves special mention. As art auctioneer Don Profondo, Giorgio Caoduro’s precision rapid-fire vocals impress. Emma Pearson unleashes ravishing vocal and comic treats as Contessa di Folleville, Spanish soprano Ruth Iniesta sings in divine harmony to solo harp as Corinna and Teddy Tahu Rhodes plunges deep into an emotive Lord Sidney, art restorer. 

Privileged too it is with young Australian Daniel Smith conducting. Vitality, colour and playfulness were abundant on opening night and Orchestra Victoria, showcasing superb solo work, gave perfection. Worth travelling far and wide for!

Il Viaggio a Reims 
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 1st June, 2019

4.5 stars 

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A fantastical and quirky period-set Falstaff plump with mockery beams at Palo Alto's West Bay Opera

Across centuries of storytelling through opera, the position of and outcomes for women rarely look glowing for contemporary eyes. Even when holding positions of power, they draw the short straw, often depicted with an emotional fragility and doomed by the men around them. 
Richard Zeller (centre) as Falstaff

But over the course of a day in Verdi’s Falstaff, based on the larger-than-life character from three of Shakespeare’s plays - The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 - women appear to have the upper hand. In its comic comment on entitlement, lechery and gluttony focused on The Bard’s “great whale of Windsor”, Falstaff is outsmarted and mocked after plotting to seduce two married women who want to teach him a lesson. Indeed their cheeky retaliatory efforts go to plan but does Falstaff learn his lesson? Sadly, he seems not to have, for this hard-shelled self-assured mass ignorantly believes himself victorious. 

In watertight dramatic form, Shakespeare’s intriguing plot is jauntily and snugly bound to Verdi’s swift-paced and narrative-heightened music and in tune with Arrigo Boito’s comically-polished and visually inducing libretto. It also comes staged in a fantastical and quirky period staging by Mexican director Ragnar Conde with a strong singing/acting cast from a company I had the fortune of discovering recently on a trip to San Francisco.
Ensemble cast in Act 2 of West Bay Opera's Falstaff

Smack in the land of small start-ups and global technology companies, Palo Alto’s West Bay Opera is a treasurable find. The company are celebrating their 60th season in what is a modest 400-seat theatre that feels too small than the level of artistry on show. It also seems the company have been in the business of delivering high quality opera for decades judging by photos of previous productions hanging in the lobby of the Lucie Stern Community Theatre.

Running the operation, Artistic Director and conductor José Luis Moscovich has assembled a genuinely unified cast sporting fine credentials. He also keeps the vitality and momentum of Verdi’s score well-oiled and shapely in a challenging three-level arrangement of the near 30-member orchestra. Despite a slither of the stage being utilised uniquely to house the brass section on two levels due to pit limitations, it works a treat. Notably, while presiding over strong musicianship, Moscovich shows himself to shine as a singer’s conductor and together with Conde, creatives and artists, all the boxes get ticked for a meaty and hugely entertaining encounter.

Watching and hearing the molten and smoky baritone blend of Richard Zeller’s Falstaff celebrating his belly and getting a good roasting is theatrical gold. An experienced Metropolitan Opera singer, Zeller’s animated and agile Falstaff prompts laughter both with him and at him, with continual lashings of charisma and spots of sympathy for the ridicule he receives. Zeller makes his performance all the more impressive because every moment on stage is given conviction as Falstaff engages, dismisses, plays and grapples with his townsfolk. 
Richard Zeller as Falstaff and Taylor Haines as Alice

Taylor Haines delivers assurance that Alice Ford - object of Falstaff’s lust for her body and her money - has what it takes to enact her trap for Falstaff, weighting her plush and flexible soprano superbly to the text and dishing out elegantly projected top notes. Haines is joined in spirited form by gem-studded mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen as Meg Page. Complicit in their trickery, Patrice Houston swirls about in generous vocal richness accompanied by deep plunging humour as Mrs Quickly. As Alice’s darling daughter Nannetta, Anastasia Malliaras’ sparkling soprano improved from thoroughly delightful early on to excellence in Act 3’s beautifully floated gossamer-edged fairy song. As her young lover, Dane Suarez’s warm tenor comfortably fits his ardent Fenton. 

Michael Mendelsohn’s fine characterful rawness as a dishevelled Dr. Caius, together with Falstaff’s thieving double-crossers - Michael Orlinski’s limber Bardolfo and Kiril Havezov’s brawny Pistola - effortlessly humorise in setting the scene for trouble ahead. Completing the ensemble of nine solists as Alice’s distinguished husband Ford, smooth and muscular baritone Krassen Karagiozov gives jealousy a handsome touch. A small exuberant chorus of townsfolk and fairies fill out the picture evocatively.
Richard Zeller (centre) as Falstaff and Ensemble, Act 3

Then there is the absolute joy derived from the staging itself. The striking beauty, subtle playfulness and sophistication of Peter Crompton’s combined projections and set-build are utterly absorbing. In its implied Elizabeth-era setting, with striking, detailed costumes by Abra Berman and a cocktail of lighting by Steve Mannshardt, stepped and wandering spatial interest provide ample opportunity for Conde’s lively direction on a restricted stage. King timbers angle in expressionist boldness. Infill walls and backgrounds give modern technology and creativity a canvas for all sorts of wondrous imagery, including a monster’s open mouth in the form of roaring fireplace in Acts 1’s Garter Inn within which a pig is being roasted on the spit. Obvious?

In this all-round accomplished West Bay Opera production, symbolic mockery is comically kept alive with everyone and everything out to punish Falstaff. Perhaps his only defenders sit somewhere in his audience. Now that’s a recipe for debate!

West Bay Opera
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto
Until 2nd June, 2019

Production Photos: Courtesy of West Bay Opera

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A slick and stunning music video sci-fi fantasy of sorts, David Bowie's Lazarus gets an excellent Australian premiere

Chris Ryan as Newton and Phoebe Panaretos as Elly
If there’s one music album I recall that I let try suppress my sense of belonging, it was David Bowie’s 1973 studio album, “Pin Ups”. I was an 11 year-old, old enough to understand its unconventionality, not mature enough to give it any thought and kept on the outer by older siblings and their friends who ooh-aahed over the album and hogged the stereo.

Of course, brawn, brains and confidence were measuring themselves up as well to see how best they could ward off any attempts to ruin a sense of belonging. Growing up had its battles. And so does adulthood as David Bowie (music) and Enda Marsh (storybook) present in Lazarus, one of Bowie’s last works before his death on 10 January 2016. The work's Australian premiere, excellently presented by The Production Company of Melbourne and EY in association with Mene Mene Theatre, must have felt like a eternal wait for Bowie fans.

Inspired by the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis and which Bowie later appeared as the story’s protagonist Thomas Newton in the subsequent film adaptation of 1976, Lazarus premiered in December 2015 when Bowie was stricken with liver cancer. In the program notes, director Michael Kantor (former Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre) describes Lazarus as “...a story about love. And sex. And loss. And death. And hope. And what is after death”. But, amongst all those battles and interconnecting those short sentences, Bowie also homes in on a sense of longing to belong, somewhere, where little, not even happiness, is what it seems.

Chris Ryan as Newton and Emily Milledge as Girl
Alien from a distant universe, Newton is trapped on earth, missing his sweet Mary Lou and falling victim to psychological stress, displacement, isolation and alcoholism. What plays out is the harrowing experience of a man whose fractured psyche and perspective is pumped out in an oft-pitiable portrayal. Despite not always being easy figuring out what’s in Newton’s mind and what’s his reality, the 90 minute experience certainly has its rewards and strengths. You might even, like myself, begin to believe that the whole alien backstory might itself be a hallucinatory part of Newton’s psychotic disturbance.

Like Bowie’s continual and unique journey of reinvention, Lazarus is unconventional as a musical. Kantor and his creative team - set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson and choreography by Stephanie Lake - present it as something of a music video sci-fi fantasy. It’s a slick and stunning staging that cleverly divides the stage into front and rear - sometimes alluding to the real and imagined - via an element of modern architecture’s curtain wall that becomes a reflective screen for a range of visual stimuli projecting their kaleidoscopic concoctions in powerful form.

Journeying from strength to strength in the lead role, Chris Ryan was a knockout affecting presence. Both forceful and lyrical, Ryan’s immediate attachment to and interpretation of the music easily convinced from the start. Often seen writhing on the bed or the floor in pyjamas surrounded by his bottled fuel, Ryan portrayed Newton’s pathos to heartbreaking limits before he is finally suited in a dreamy atmosphere of hope and salvation. Among his music, Ryan made phenomenal work of and a strapping, soul-searching “Killing a Little Time”, one of three songs held back and redone for the Lazarus soundtrack, in a runaway highlight as glass shatters around him.

Chris Ryan as Lazarus and Teenage Girls
It’s part of 17 songs that span Bowie’s career, including “The Man Who Sold the World", released in 1970, and "Changes", a year later. Singing them, Ryan is joined by a strong surrounding cast that includes  Emily Milledge in glassy and radiant voice as Girl, a cute figure who knows more about Newton than she does of herself and comes into his mind offering hope. New Zealand-Australian singer iOTA brings creepy eccentricity and plasticity to the role of Valentine as he lurks about before stabbing happiness in the back and Phoebe Panaretos throws everything, as well as a rich and resonant sound, at her obsession with Newton as his working assistant Elly. At Tuesday's opening night the finale came with the most successful harmonies of the night from the ensemble in a soaring rendition of "Heroes" and, keeping the music pulsating with glowing clarity and a little sentimental charm, musical director and soundscape designer Jethro Woodward and his band provide impressive support from a raised platform back of stage.

I had my reservations at the start and the show sags momentarily in the second half but you don’t have to be a Bowie fan to be won over by the mystique Lazarus brings. It’s ironic that all those years ago when I thought I couldn’t belong, decades later I sense in Lazarus that Bowie was dealing with it too. We all are. And perhaps we just need to get on with it without turning against ourselves.

The Production Company
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 9th June

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Monday, May 20, 2019

Domingo's 151st role accompanies zarzuela's great appeal in a passionately presented El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat") at L.A. Opera

The drama in Spanish composer and librettist Manuel Penella’s El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat") is intense and on the edge. Around the adrenaline-charged atmosphere of the bullfight, two hot-blooded males spin out of control like tornados around a beautiful young village girl in a love-triangle at boiling point. On the surface, it has much of the flavour of French composer Georges Bizet’s popular opera Carmen. Penella’s work which premiered in Madrid in 1916, however, is noticeably more sentimental and the music, while passionate, stirring and whirls from highlight to highlight, occasionally makes abrupt and awkward transitions that affect the dramatic flow.

Anton Chacón-Cruz as Rafael (centre) in L.A. Opera's El Gato Montés
Nonetheless, it’s a thrilling piece of music drama - seasoned with little light comic touches - that blends romance, local culture and religion with the sweeping rhythms, lyrical warmth and melodic charms that makes zarzuela what it is. Kudos to L.A. Opera for bringing director Jorge Torres’ El Gato Montés in a production from today’s epicentre of the art form, Teatro della Zarzuela in Madrid.

Of course, that has much to do with Artistic Director Plácido Domingo in the driver’s seat and he makes a strong case for its cause. It’s not the first time L.A. Opera have staged Penella’s work either. Back in 1994 it was presented for the first time in L.A. with Domingo, 35 years younger, singing the tenor role of Rafael Ruiz, the young, possessive and blinkered bullfighter. On this occasion, Anton Chacón-Cruz took to the bullfighting spotlight with ease, giving Rafael showiness and showmanship with a stellar radiant tenor to match.

In the meantime, as the fugitive and outlaw Juanillo, the "Wild Cat", the 78 year-old Domingo added his 151st role to an extraordinary career. Once again, Domingo commanded the stage with a performance that demonstrated age’s limitless possibility. At this penultimate performance, with no sign of tiring, tenor-turned baritone Domingo soared through his music with a blasting entrance as Juanillo interrupts the town festivities that celebrate Rafael’s promotion to matador at a recent Madrid bullfight. From there, Domingo unleashed in convincing voice and fine acting just how determined Juanillo could be in wanting to stand in Rafael’s way for the girl they love, Soleá. In Domingo, whose warm and molten baritone was propelled with utter ease, the bravado shone from an emotionally scarred character who, in the opera’s backstory, had defended Soleá and killed a man.

Anton Chacón-Cruz as Rafael, Ana María Martínez as Soleá
and Plácido Domingo as Juanillo
Chacón-Cruz’s Rafael stood his ground, providing the combative tension between the two and of a man who puts his faith in God. In prayer, as he prepares for a bullfight in Seville that seemingly no victory will guarantee his life while Juanillo is around, the lofty high notes rang brilliantly and the passionate rendering of Rafael’s heart for his Soleá blazed to dangerous levels.

Set to marry one but in love with the other, Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez depicted young village beauty Soleá with strength and stature. It’s not easy accepting why Soleá acts as she does. Her raisin d’être often feels like leftovers from the emphasis placed on Juanillo and Rafael’s singular desire to have her. But Martínez used her captivating style to great affect, her lush and vivid sound as decorated and resplendent as the flamenco dresses that enliven festivities. Notably, in duet with Chacón-Cruz and Domingo, Martínez demonstrated her ability to blend expression and sensuality with affecting results that tempered the testosterone around her tugged-at Soleá.

The supporting cast also rose to the occasion in splendid form. Big gravelly bass Rubén Amoretti’s vocal flexibility and assured performance coloured village priest Padre Anton with communal leadership and animated good humour. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera floated impressive dark hues as the Fortune Teller who reads the impending tragedy on Rafael’s palm and E. Scott Levin solidly and faithfully supported Rafael as his friend and picador Hormigón.

Plácido Domingo as Juanillo and Ana María Martínez as Soleá
Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer provided the heat and zest to hurtle the drama forward with the L.A. Opera Orchestra playing an unblemished performance in the pit. Dotted in the drama, the choreography of Cristina Hoyos and Jesús Ortega added exhilarating and forceful step to proceedings courtesy of 16 well-synchronised dancers, filling out the stage with the unified voice of the L.A. Opera Chorus of peasants. Fortunately, Torres’ clear and thoughtful direction carefully allowed drama not to be overridden by spectacle.

Clever too was stage and lighting designer Francisco Leal’s evocative and economical creation that relied on little more than a rock-hewn breadth of steps, spare projections and a few props, including a magnificent oversized elaborate mirror that hangs in Act 2 to signify the status bestowed on the matador. Elsewhere, darkness seeped into the distance to give weight to the brooding nature of events.

In bringing zarzuela to the L.A. Opera audience, Domingo shows how El Gato Montés is much more than a novelty. That said, as a repertoire title the case doesn’t stack up but what does excite is the thought that thousands of other Spanish zarzuela lie in wait for newfound discovery.

El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat")
L.A. Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Music Centre
Until 19th May, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bristling with energy but Opera Australia's Così fan tutte lapses in musical strength in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in edited form in Melbourne's Herald Sun on Thursday16th May, 2019

In Così fan tutte, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte give a tough lesson on love and fidelity. Light-hearted but heated, it lays out a battle of the sexes in a ludicrous romp that has infinite theatrical adaptability. Provocative, innuendo-rich, touching and set to music of utmost pleasures, it rather serves as a yardstick from which how far society has come. 

Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo, Anna Dowsley as Dorabella,
Jane Ede as Fiordiligi and Pavel Petrov as Ferrando
As the final instalment of director Sir David McVicar’s study of the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas for Opera Australia, the work bristles with energy under revival director Andy Morton. Gorgeously staged, designer Moritz Junge's neoclassical spaces and David Finn's summery lighting add enchantment to its day of romantic reform in a time just before WWI as the world was changing rapidly.

Especially so, its six characters present their intentions with sustained intelligibility and a thoughtful balance exists between tested hearts and comic attack. But the bold and beautiful delights it began with musically and vocally lapsed across its three hours of challenging stints of ravishing arias, duets, trios and up to sextets.

Setting the lesson in motion, Richard Anderson’s dignified Don Alfonso was strong and promising. Pavel Petrov as Ferrando and Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo also opened in muscular form as his young well-bred friends he makes a wager with, asserting that their fiances won’t be faithful. 

Jane Ede as Fiordiligi, Taryn Fiebig as Despina
and Anna Dowsley as Dorabella
But all three lost out as top end of the voice faltered to privileged sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella who soprano Jane Ede and mezzo Anna Dowsley captured in eloquent voice with Dowsley particularly showing individual excellence. And easily lured in to unsaddle the myth of fidelity, Taryn Fiebig cut a figure of comic aplomb and disguise in bright mezzo form as the sisters' housemaid Despina.

In the pit, the sound warmly radiated but fell short of propulsion from conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. Orchestra Victoria was having an unusually off night too in the brass department although the filigreed woodwinds were superb.
In the end, McVicar casts a hint of pessimism that things may not be so rosy in the future – a caution for young lovers on their first date!

Così fan tutte
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 25th May 2019

3.5 stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Moshinsky's Rigoletto revival for Opera Australia in Melbourne is opera at its chilling best: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in edited form in Melbourne's Herald Sun on 14th May, 2019

Us humans are often faced with the task of juggling disgust and sympathy in judgement upon others’ questionable morality and behaviour. That quality ripples through Verdi’s Rigoletto. In Opera Australia’s almost 30 year-old Elijah Moshinsky production, it was captured glaringly and poignantly.
It was also demonstrated when one disgruntled attendee with a decades-long grudge delayed the start by 20 minutes with audience sympathy (little) and disgust (pronounced) at work even before the curtain went up. In Verdi’s work, however, bitterness is spun with revenge and murder in a horrifying outcome that ends the life of an innocent and backfires on the perpetrator.

Amartuvshin Enkhbat as Rigoletto and Liparit Avetisyan as the Duke
Under revival director Hugh Halliday, part of the allure of Moshinsky’s work stems from Michael Yeargan’s splendid detailed design. As if to cement its 1960s update in its period Italianate surrounds, the hunchbacked Rigoletto transforms into something much like Batman's adversary, The Joker. Gilda, his over-protected daughter, initially feels restricted by a Sandra Dee-like exterior but both reveal far more as these archetypes are abandoned.

The opening scene - alluding to a debauched gentleman’s club rather than the original story’s 16th century ducal palace setting - could do with fine-tuning. But the central trio of youngish soloists excelled in powering and shading robust characters.

Commanding Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat proved himself a compelling actor and nuanced interpreter. In Enkhbat’s aggrieved, nervy and hobbling Rigoletto, assuredness and smoothness of tone dominated alongside an expansive voice with reserves of fuel through to Rigoletto’s agonised finale.

Liparit Avetisyan as Duke of Mantua and Stacey Alleaume as Gilda
In a meritorious role debut, Stacey Alleaume brought penetrating expressivity in gleaming silvery voice to Gilda’s fatal romance. Armenian Liparit Avetisyan was impressive as the lecherous Duke. A mocking “La donna è mobile” certainly won on popularity but it was Act 2’s twin arias where, with the power to seduce his audience, Avetisyan’s melting warmth and passionate tenor struck gold.

Roberto Scandiuzzi’s hulking Sparafucile headed a muscular supporting cast although in the pit conductor Andrea Licata took tempi in occasionally unsettling direction. Including one of opera’s most gripping moments in a thunderous night of terror when murder answers the door, Rigoletto is opera at it’s chilling best.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 29th May, 2019


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A new Australian opera about William Buckley tells an incredible story from a disappointingly short-sighted perspective: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight on 29th April, 2019.

Firstly, let’s not allow the number of stars to dampen the spirit, enthusiasm and creative vision that
inspires and accompanies new Australian work, especially those that embrace stories reflecting colonial occupation, survival and a few uncomfortable truths. On Friday evening, with little fanfare and quietly slipping into Australian operatic history, a new opera called Buckley premiered in Rosebud, one of a chain of seaside towns on the Mornington Peninsula that straddle Port Phillip Bay and morph into suburbs all the way to high density central Melbourne – a place unaccustomed to staged opera let alone a world premiere. The town is not far from Sullivan Bay where events that followed the escape of English convict William Buckley in 1803 – 40,000 years after the local Boon Wurrung people had been living on the land – are said to have given birth to the vernacular saying ‘Buckley’s chance’ which Aussies know to mean “to be as good as impossible”.

Sarah Prestwidge as Purran-Murnin and Michael Lampard as Buckley
Referred to as ‘a narrative chamber opera’ in three short acts and written by locals composer Antony Ransome and librettist Richard Cotter, Buckley celebrates the survival of a lone white man who made his way around the Bay, who was fortuitously welcomed in by the Wathaurong people on the Bellarine Peninsula and subsequently spent the next 32 years living among them. The convict settlement under the command of Lt Governor David Collins never lasted, packing up after just a few months before heading south to Tasmania.

Lucidly directed and cleverly designed by David Lampard, it’s an incredible story that began with a promising concept – a piece of local history told in opera that had the potential to educate, comment on, unite and impact on a broader Australian community. But in glorifying Buckley’s ability to survive in the face of overwhelming odds are we forgetting that it was due to the Wathaurong people who Buckley owed his life? In Ransome and Cotter’s 80-minute work, their significance felt noticeably neglected.

Much of the text of Cotter’s libretto sources historical ‘white’ documents. Delivered over a short but changeable overture, the opera begins with John Morgan (Brendan Croft) as narrator, author of the most well-known account of Buckley’s life, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, who met Buckley in 1852. Almost 200 years later, it’s from this perspective that history is interpreted. Ransome does, however, continue with a chorus of Aboriginal men and women who sing both compelling and entreating words from off-stage with the arrival of Collins and his entourage of soldiers, convicts and settlers:

“Tarebuden koolin – wida yannana murrumbinna, winda linga.
White man, where are you going? Why?
We know you took our young women to kill seals,
Mon mon deek birrkin maren mum, along Bass Strait, karberin tournet, murder surrounds you.
Urummurrua, all about everywhere, this is our country.
This country all around here is ours our mother and our sweetheart.
Bunjil made the mountains, rivers and trees for us.
Mulligan, wallert, wimba, coolup.
Birds, possum, wallaby, emu are in our care.
Tarebuden koolin! Monmaat netberet.
White man go away now, this very moment.”

But the only noteworthy Indigenous presence seen on stage comes in Act 2 when the young woman Purran-Murnin chances upon Buckley while sleeping in the bush and believes him to be one of her people’s warriors reincarnated. In Act 1, Ransome and Cotter dedicate much length to the conditions and ambience of the oft-drunken camp. Even Buckley’s appearance is sparse to this point. Closing the act, the boredom and disappointment with the place is assuaged with a rum-fuelled party to which Mozart’s Non più andrai from The Marriage of Figaro and a delightful English folk song raise both the mood of the setting and the melody meter. But this lively divertissement seems to gobble valuable time. It also raises the question of relevance, and the opportunity to elaborate on a clash of cultures felt lost.

Lucas de Jong as Tuckey
Act 2, in which the 32 years Buckley spent with the Wathaurong people is covered – marrying Purran-Murnin, having a daughter to her, then preparing her for his departure – felt too hastily swept over. Buckley’s story had the smell of Puccini’s Pinkerton from Madama Butterfly but the drama remained arid. When Buckley finally meets white colonials again in Act 3, he narrates his story through a long introspective-like aria. Buckley chose to remain with the settlers of early Melbourne but, with apparent inner struggles as a voice between Indigenous and white people, he left for Tasmania (as the narrator returns to tell the audience), where he married a ‘real’ Australian wife. Buckley’s was a remarkable life and makes a salient story. But when the final chorus rang out with accolades of persistence, bravery, dignity and blessedness, you cry out for Indigenous input and perspective.

Musically, an overall meandering, willowy quality to Ransome’s score evokes the landscape with thought and subtlety. Woodwinds feature large in the music, played by a tight ensemble of eight from the Peninsula Chamber Musicians, with flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon making up the majority of instruments. Viola, trombone and harpsichord/piano added texture, along with percussion that includes traditional bilma (clap sticks) that seemed to echo through the bush and the snare drum’s military beat that supplies cultural contrast. The issue was that the musical temperament rarely burst with drama even as vocal lines attempted to do so, the result being an uneasy tension between the two despite conductor Joseph Lallo’s attentive approach and the palpable commitment of the cast.

Baritone Michael Lampard’s reliable vocal heft, expressive colour and conviction in the title role ensured that Buckley’s journey from harshly punished convict (sentenced for stealing two pieces of Irish cloth), to Wathaurong member and later encounter with his own white people again was elevated with strong impact. Lampard’s rock-solid command of and nuance achieved in the text is to be lauded, especially so in Act 3’s lengthy retelling of his years with the Wathaurong people.

Hew Wagner as Collins
As Purran-Murnin, Indigenous soprano Sarah Prestwidge rather defeated all in coming to the rescue after Shauntai Batzke’s late withdrawal due to family circumstances. The combination of Prestwidge’s sweet, mellifluous soprano, her music’s gentle warmth and the light, graceful steps she took brought a touching presence to the only Indigenous role. Particularly striking, Prestwidge beautifully tempered Buckley’s brawny resonance for the intimate duet they shared in Act 2 as they sank into each other’s affection.

Hew Wagner put his glowing tenor to fine use as Collins, providing both the authoritative rigidity of a leader and lyrical musings of a man questioning his circumstances. Other roles, doubled with the passing of time between Acts 1 and 3, were satisfactorily supported by dark cavernous bass Steven Gallop’s Rev. Robert Knopwood/Daniel McAllenan, polished baritone Lucas de Jong’s Lt James Tuckey/James Gumm and Jerzy Kozlowski as Dr Edward Bromley/Rev. George Langhorne. Tenor Stephen Carolane’s effortless energy drew impressive life on three roles, of which Buckley’s fellow convict, William Marmon, was sung with pleasing vigour. And it seemed that a token female white role was needed for an English song but it beamed full of richness from Alexandra Oke as Hannah Power. Members of the Rosebud Theatre Group, Astral Theatre Society and Southern Peninsula Singers formed an adequately sung chorus of settlers and Aboriginals but reinforced numbers would have helped.

Lampard’s period-dressed design brilliantly resolved the needs of the opera’s setting while capturing a sense of isolation, simplicity and hardship with the enigma and depth of the bush ever-present. Stands of tea tree could be moved about in their dry landscape shaped by raw canvas, parts of which could be hoisted and lowered to create variable scenes. Projections added minor benefit to the whole picture although a camp-fire burning during Buckley and Purran-Murnin’s duet looked convincing. Notably, Lampard’s spatial eye and sensitivity in blocking kept the breadth and depth of the stage well covered and consistently visually interesting.

Before Buckley got underway, local Indigenous elder Caroline Briggs’ revealing welcome to country included the story of her ancestral links to both local Indigenous and white people from Collins’ original settlement. In those few words alone a collective emotive energy seemed to fill the room. Unfortunately, it didn’t feel that way when the lights when down on the final act.

Buckley Opera Project with the Astral Theatre Society Rosebud
Rosebud Memorial Hall
Until 27th April, 2019

Production Photos: Amanda Stuart

Saturday, April 20, 2019

A director's fresh mark and the shocking tragedy of Madama Butterfly made powerful at Opera San José

Twenty-something times seen or more, there’s still a limitless amount to say about Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s ever-popular opera that premiered in 1904. In a revival production from Opera San José that opened in 2014, director Brad Dalton allows it to speak with a good degree of freshness with conductor Joseph Marcheso shaping its music with billowing momentum from an orchestra expertly in line.

Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San and Opera San José Chorus
The buzzing of mosquitos depicted by the opening strings around Cio-Cio-San’s (Butterfly’s) little hillside home in Nagasaki, the boom of the port’s cannon signalling the arrival of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the harbour and the delicate, breezy air that blows in the wordless “Humming Chorus" as Cio-Cio-San waits for her husband to climb the hill - not only in it’s capacity to wring out emotional energy, so much more is painted in music to be relished.

Layered over this, director Brad Dalton hints to us that Cio-Cio-San, is not alone in her abandonment and that many a young female may suffer the same tragedy she does when she falls for the U.S. Naval Lieutenant B.J. Pinkerton. Cio-Cio-San’s happiness turned to grief is all the more painful and disturbing because Dalton, with a methodically detailed eye, zooms in on Cio-Cio-San’s naivety and resolve as well as Pinkerton’s cultural clumsiness and blatant insensitivity.

When the curtain goes up, four naval officers give an American salute in front of the red and white stripes that appear to signify allegiance to country over the women they take as toys. One of them breaks off and joins his Japanese plaything but Pinkerton can’t help himself from making cheap advances on her, the morning he is to wed Cio-Cio-San. It’s a stinging start that complements the ambiguous mood Puccini writes for Cio-Cio-San’s entrance when she shares her joy, “I am the happiest girl in Japan!” to music that is dolefully coloured.

Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San and
Renée Rapier as Suzuki
Despite the vividly drawn individual characters, Act 1 had its issues. In the title role soprano Maria Natale initially wasn’t the 15 year-old Cio-Cio-San I had hoped to meet. Much of the young geisha’s coyness was overplayed along with movements that looked awkwardly choreographed. Cio-Cio-San’s amorous pairing with Derek Taylor’s Pinkerton, the picture of a man's man, also appeared unconvincing. But 3 years later, when aged 18 as she waits in hope for Pinkerton’s return, Natale gave her everything you could wish for in an Act 2 and 3 of soaring beauty and diving grief. And the tears rolled on cue! Natale impressed immensely in Act 2’s “Un bel dì vedremo” ("One fine day we shall see") - another poignant Puccini moment with the tone of pathos in music sung with radiant hope - her vocal agility in full flight with emotional expression that welled with naturalness from within. And the more distant she appeared as hope was finally fading, the more you sensed that Natale was barrelling towards a kind of ‘mad scene’ that culminated in a riveting and horrifyingly tense final aria she plunged into with compelling power, “Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!” ("You? You? My little god!"), as Cio-Cio-San bids farewell to her young boy. 

Taylor’s smug and cocky depiction of Pinkerton had desired impact, his tenor’s burnished tone, resonance and projection delivered with overall attractiveness. Transitions into his upper register occasionally lacked smoothness but, from the centre down to the lower voice, the confidence and form were commanding (Dane Suarez opened the season and alternates in the role). Renée Rapier was particularly impressive in dark mezzo lushness as Cio-Cio-San’s loyal housemaid Suzuki and sharing her brief sense of optimism with Cio-Cio-San in a tender, sisterly and heavenly "Flower Duet". 

Both reasonable and resigned as the US Consul Sharpless, baritone Trevor Neal stood firmly anchored in voice with smouldering warmth of tone. Neal brought out Sharpless’ reading of the letter from Pinkerton in an Act 2 highlight with a robust show of compassion as Cio-Cio-San blindly believes she will be re-united in marital harmony. But even that had its limits as his pent-up frustration with Pinkerton leads him to lunge at and grab Cio-Cio-San in a last attempt to make her understand the truth.

Trevor Neal as Sharpless, Renée Rapier as Suzuki
and Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San 

Supporting roles were generously filled with Mason Gates making a strong impression as the slimy marriage broker Goro, Philip Skinner a storming Satan-like figure as Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, the Bonze, and Ben Brady as the wealthy and patient Prince Yamadori. Katherine Sanford, as Pinkerton’s American wife Kate, exuded grace and warmth of voice and demeanour in the uncomfortable circumstance of one woman pledging to raise another’s child.

Set designer Kent Dorsey infuses the three-act singular fluidly realised early 20th century setting with deft economy and ambience as well as engaging effects that capture the seasons under Pamila Z. Gray’s well-balanced lighting. A gently raked shiny black central platform defines the dwelling area and leads to a spread of steps backed by a sliding black wall. Behind, a variety of effects are created that offer subtle and distinctive ways to demarcate time. Paper screens drop sparingly, three floor lanterns sit either side of the platform, and a few simple furnishings indicate the little alterations Cio-Cio-San makes as an American’s wife that include Act 2’s shrine to her absent husband and a Buddhist shrine in front of which Suzuki worships. Julie Engelbrecht’s costumes do colourful justice to the everyday and ceremonial robes of Japanese tradition and the tailored class of Western presence, together with handsome royal blue naval uniforms. 

And wearing the uniform of his father as  Dolore, young Ezra Kramer (Atom Young Maguire alternates) couldn’t hold back audience applause and tears in the final shocking moment Dalton constructs in which the young Dolore plays with his model ship centre of fore-stage as his mother takes her life behind him. What comes next will stain his innocence for life. And for those who might be tired of the opera’s popularity and frequency, it makes an eternally affecting and essential piece of dramatic theatre no end of freshness, it seems, can be given to. 

Madama Butterfly
Opera San José
California Theatre
Until 28th April, 2019

Production Photos: courtesy of Opera San José

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Handel's Saul resonates resplendently as pages turn effortlessly in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale’s concert performance in San Francisco

Need a new challenge? Imagine ticking off at the theatre or concert hall at least half of George Frideric Handel’s staggering output of more than 70 musical dramas he composed in the decades that followed his first opera that premiered in 1705, Almira. In Handel’s mix of operas and oratorios, San Franciscans have three occasions to add to the tally this year at the very least. First up, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale’s concert performance of Saul has come to an end of a short season that took it to audiences across several Californian venues - including Los Angeles’ Disney Hall - since it opened on 6th April in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. My opportunity to see it came on Friday evening within the classical-revival elegance of San Francisco’s beautifully proportioned Herbst Theatre. The results were splendid and the pleasures it gave were plentiful.

Daniel Okulitch as Saul 
With a libretto freely adapted by Charles Jennens from the First Book of Samuel
in the Old Testament, Saul, composed in 1739, is usually performed as an oratorio in concert form, but here and there has also been staged as an opera - the most notable recent example being Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s spectacular staging by director Barrie Kosky. 

Though not entirely, much of the story centres on Saul, King of the Israelites, and his insecurity and fear of losing popularity to the brave young warrior David, slayer of the Philistine giant Goliath. First, Saul praises David’s victory and offers Merab, one of his daughters, in marriage to her disgust. Adding to the dilemma, Merab’s sister Michal is in love with David. Worse, when Saul has a change of heart he compels his son Jonathan, who has sworn devotion to David, to kill him. 

Without the creative trimmings of the theatre, conductor Nicholas McGegan’s respectful and intimate approach allowed the drama’s psychological aspect to resonate significantly, together with soloists who painted their own talented mark on Handel’s score. Handel’s chorus work gleamed in its attractive offset parts - the final “Gird on thy sword, though man of might” a particularly resplendent blend - but it was the dramatic polarity achieved in contrasting voice types between Saul and David that impressively capped the drama.  

Gravelly and robustly structured bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch’s Saul was outstanding and no-one gave the text such clarity as he showed with it, excelling in both recitative and aria. When the pressure mounted, Okulitch let loose in gripping and emphatic form, portraying Saul’s troubled inner thoughts with excruciating mental pain with the physical bearing to match. 
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as David and
 Sherezade Panthaki as Michal

As David, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was a magnetic presence as he sang with unassuming sincerity and heroism, his syrupy, stirring and easily floated countertenor a beguiling force for audience and admiring Israelites of the chorus alike. In David’s Act 1 slow-tempo aria, “O Lord, whose mercies numberless”, in which he sings a summoning of tranquility to quell Saul’s fury, the delicacy and grace of Cohen’s countertenor shone with comforting, dreamy beauty. Equally compelling came the heft and smouldering darker tones of the voice in Act 3’s “Impious wretch, of race accurst!” when the loyal David learns of Jonathan and Saul’s death in battle. 

The romantic duets with lustrous soprano Sherezade Panthaki’s swooning Michal were special highlights in which the pleasure of unity came with glorious vocal alignment, the amorous strains of Act 2’s “O fairest of ten thousand fair” picked up by a perfectly sublime chorus. Panthaki herself made a stronger impression the more she settled after early vocal leaps that lacked smooth transition. Her final aria, “In sweetest harmony they liv’d” was completely absorbing, the crystal top notes created with ease and the full extent of the voice interpreting her father and brother’s death utterly convincingly.

As Merab, mellifluous, bell-like soprano Yulia Van Doren was radiant both as privileged princess and heartfelt woman. Not one, it appeared, to avoid the spices available to her in the text, Van Doren made especially fine work of Act 1’s “Capricious man, in humour lost” with arabesque trills and gymnastic register shifts that added much to her animated performance. 
Conductor Nicholas McGegan and Yulia Van Doren as Merab

Aaron Sheehan’s warm and pure tenor met the needs of a man besotted by courage but could have done with a little more vigour in giving Jonathan a greater sense that a heart was being torn when Saul commands him to murder David. Shiny tenor Jonathan Smucker stepped from the chorus into the roles of the Witch of Endor, Abner and a Amalekite in good form. But then this treat. Commandingly sung with a spot of welcome natural-sounding English, bass-baritone Christian Pursell not only made the most of the two smaller roles of Dieg and Samuel but made you want more. And how relishing the sound and adaptability of the chorus lived under Bruce Lamott’s directorship.

Evident too was the warm collegiality among the players of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. The synchronicity of the violins resonated superbly under concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock’s leading choreographed-like bow strokes and body movements, Janet See and Mindy Rosenfeld’s flute accompaniment shared sweet atmospheric equality and Kristin Zoernig and Michael Minor’s double bass work stamped an endearing mark. And with his team, McGegan admirably eschewed the grandiose and opted for lightness, eloquence and precision.

Handel’s achievements are many but when a large audience sits and turns the pages of their programs in unison to the libretto to his glorious music, 280 years after its composition, you couldn’t imagine Bible Studies being any more exhilarating. 

More Handel comes in June with San Francisco Opera’s new production of Orlando - you get to hear Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in the role of Medoro - and of course, Handel’s Messiah will bring uplifting spirit to the Christmas festive season. I’m not even a local but I’m counting on being there.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale 
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco 
12th April 2019

Production Photos: Frank Wing (from opening night performance)