Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Astutely detailed comic charms and a characterfully sung Barber of Seville at California's Livermore Valley Opera

Flying across the Pacific to San Francisco from Melbourne seemed so much easier than the 2-hour public transport trek it took to get to Livermore, a pleasant city of close to 100,000 residents located on the eastern edge of California’s San Francisco Bay Area. It felt a world away but even though the place was unknown to me, seeing one of opera’s most popularly performed works there brought with it, as cultural pursuits can do, a welcoming sense of connection. The infectious comedy and chaos that Livermore Valley Opera highlighted in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville might have a little to do with that, for there I was, drawn into and chucking along with its astutely detailed comic charms and characterfully sung characters as part of a collective spirit that said it all.

Despite its scale, Livermore Valley Opera had quite an offering to applaud. Not only was Rossini’s 203 year old work thoughtfully staged in its original 18th century Seville setting, a professional cast with depth of experience made certain it fired on all fronts. Director Robert Herriot had a few fabulous tricks up his sleeve as well, ensuring that even anyone with an umpteenth count of seeing it in various productions would encounter newness within. 

In Herriot’s hands and the energy of the cast, the characters - Figaro and Fiorello, Count Almaviva and Rosina, Bartolo, Basilio, Berta and Ambrogio - were enlivened splendidly with each of the cast bringing their own quirks and style of humour. Here and there, hamming things up to the point of individual showiness got the laughs too but came at the expense of character interplay. Nonetheless, the entertainment flowed.

It's a long and crazy day at the Bartolo household. The suspicious old Bartolo, young Rosina’s guardian, wants to marry her. And it needs to be that evening because he’s afraid Count Almaviva will get to her first. While he plots with Basilio, little does he know that a disguised Almaviva, with the help of master schemer Figaro, manages to enter his house first as a soldier and then as Basilio’s student in order to come face to face with Rosina. She’s already fallen for Almaviva and believes he’s a poor student but once misunderstandings and temperaments clear, consensual love wins the day. 

Two-time alumnus of the Merola Opera Program Alex DeSocio moved with suavity and sang with appealing individuality as the jack-of-all-trades and loveable Figaro, his charismatic and molten baritone perfectly prepared to impress and entertain. As an athletic and venturesome Almaviva, Grammy Award winning toasty warm tenor Thomas Glenn sang from the heart with high-flying lines deployed with  intelligence and care. Lush mezzo-soprano and a coloratura class-act, Metropolitan Opera artist Shirin Eskandani worked circumstances brilliantly in pitting coyness against sassiness as Rosina.  

Seasoned smoky bass-baritone Peter Strummer’s comedic flair and timing served a treat as a paunchy and plodding Bartolo. Bass Kirk Eichelburger dripped and bellowed the text to a marvellously cavernous and resonant depth as a gaunt, ghostly and red-nosed alcoholic Basilio. And when she wasn’t screaming insanely down the passageway, Deborah Rosengaus showed off a soaring mezzo-soprano as an often stern and condescending-eyed Berta. Smooth and dusky baritone Ryan Bradford opened the night to set the high standards as Almaviva’s obliging servant Fiorello while mustering a dreamy-voiced chorus of serenaders and Robert Canning was a dumbfounded endearing sort as the benefactor of Berta’s unleashed lust in the non-singing role of Bartolo’s servant Ambrogio.

In the pit, tempos meandered occasionally but Rossini’s melodious energy resounded in bursts of numerous highlights under conductor Alexander Katsman. Act 1’s cacophonous finale was a splendid sight and sound as stage and pit came together for the confusion that unfolds in slow-motion and frozen phases, as was Act 2’s instrumental interlude during which the thunderous music brought full effect to the night scene change from interior to exterior and back again. 

Little details like flashes of light on the tiled roofs as part of Frederic Boulay’s projections added to the classic but evocative staging - sets by Jean-François Revon, costumes by Loran Watkins and lighting by Sean Russell. A decanter that provided enormous quantities of whisky to assuage circumstances (which Basilio couldn’t keep away from), Berta’s Act 2 aria as she takes the shaver to her top lip, Almaviva’s Act 1 aria costume change from count to soldier behind Figaro’s umbrella and lots of emphatically rolled Italian ‘r’s won’t be forgotten easily. Now that I’m acquainted with Livermore and what Livermore Valley Opera are doing, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get back next season.

The Barber of Seville 
Livermore Valley Opera
Bankhead Theatre 
Until 17th March 2019

Production Photos: 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A swish-looking, pacy and effective La Rondine at Alameda's Island City Opera

Love and happiness can neither be taught nor bought no matter how much life is glamourised on the exterior. Magda di Civry knows, the carefree but questioning courtesan and protagonist in Puccini’s lesser performed opera that premiered in 1917, La Rondine. Not unlike Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s similarly mid-19th century Parisian setting of La traviata, Magda falls in love and begins a new life with a passionate young gentleman. Whereas Violetta is robbed of love through conservative societal attitudes and terminal illness, Magda gives it up on her own, unable to find comfort in a life in which the past might catch up and blaming herself before deciding on a return to her former existence. For Violetta, we know she truly loved. In Magda’s case, we’re never so certain. Of the two, you sense that Magda is the more troubled, anxious and self-doubtful. 
Eileen Meredith as Magda and Alex Boyer as Ruggero

Another romance plays out in contrast. Like adding salt to wound, love seems to come so much easier for Lisette and Prunier. They, like Magda and Ruggero belong to different classes - she a servant in Magda’s household, he a poet and aesthete. But in the end, if it’s one thing, it’s Magda’s personal burden that gives this operetta oddity from Puccini its greatest substance.

She is ‘La Rondine’, the fleet-flying swallow who returns to her nest and where we find Puccini at his most mercurial. It’s hardly a walk in the park pulling it off but Island City Opera made a fine show of it on Friday night, the third in a run of four performances. And it came with early 20th century optimism, as new love itself promises, in a swish-looking, pacy and effective production from director Jane Erwin Hammett. 

Based in Alameda, just an hour outside downtown San Francisco by public transport, Island City Opera is a smallish company that not only serves its local community but deserves attention from audiences a little further afield. They perform at Elks Lodge (taxidermy included), in a banquet-sized, broad spaced hall that has some limitations but the experience served is inviting, value-for-money and delivered with quality.

To one side of the hall, under well-determined tempi from Music Director Jonathan Khuner, the 21-member orchestra played with diligence and strong-sounding expertise. On the whole, the darting rhythms and shifts of mood were handled appealingly. Hints of Puccini’s popular previous works shine through so vividly at times they almost railroad the immediacy at hand, as do threads of what was to come in his final opera, Turandot. The strings could’ve captured the score’s inbuilt elegance with a little more fullness and vigour and the volume outdid the singers at times but the overall effect was one of buoyancy and vitality.

Soprano Eileen Meredith, a regular artist at Island City Opera, performed admirably in bringing home the crisis Magda faces in finding personal happiness. Fittingly, Meredith exuded both worldliness and the world-weary, doe-eyed love and the quandary it leads to, doing so with lovely gracefulness in voice and pearliness of tone. One quibble would be with fogging the text on occasion but Meredith rose time and again to impress from her jewel box of beauties and a prized-sounding luminous top range that both fired and silkened a delectable coloratura.

I was especially taken by Alex Boyer’s Ruggero and Sergio Gonzalez’s Prunier - both excellently sung and infused with ardency and character. Boyer’s resonantly warm-raftered tenor captured the young and besotted Ruggero’s passions superbly. Lighting fire to clearly enunciated text, Gonzalez applied his bright elastic tenor to his moustached and cheery Prunier. Lush soprano Elizabeth Russ took exuberant control of Magda’s affairs and jumped into her own as a Lisette of simple needs. Surrounding members of the elegantly dressed bourgeoisie, students and Magda’s friends Yvette, Bianca and Suzy - to whom Christabel Nunoo, Liesl McPherrin and Katja Heuzeroth brought playful potency and harmonious voice - filled out the narrow depth of stage to satisfying effect. 

From heartfelt arias to swooning duets and thrillingly rambunctious chorus work (Act 2 at Bulliers pulled out a knockout display from the Island City Opera Chorus), La Rondine, despite its sometimes exhausting restlessness, can charm indeed. In the end your heart goes out to Ruggero. But losing her as he does in their swanky apartment on the French Riviera, Magda makes you feel that it was for the best. Perhaps more than the conservative moralising she assumed was her enemy, marriage and kids were obviously the last straw. Great work Island City Opera! 

La Rondine 
Island City Opera
Elks Lodge, Alameda, CA
Until 17th March 2019

Production Photos: 

Monday, March 11, 2019

A jubilant debut for one Aussie soprano in a surprising and jaunty Falstaff at New York’s Metropolitan Opera

How would it feel to stand on the enormous stage of New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera, face its vast almost 4000-seat auditorium and make your house debut as an opera singer? I’ll never know. Few who tirelessly work dreaming of making singing opera a career would either. But not so for Aussie soprano Helena Dix whose dreams were realised on Friday when, in bringing Alice Ford to life in Verdi’s Falstaff, ascended into the constellation of Met Opera artists.

Australian soprano Helena Dix
Photo: Grzegorz Monkiewicz
This was a longtime scheduled performance for the season with Dix sharing the role with American soprano Ailyn Pérez, singing one night of the total run of 7 performances. Many loved ones, friends and well-wishers were there for support, her name and bio were there in black and white in the playbill and from the moment Dix took the stage, she appeared relaxed and natural. That she slipped into the already well-settled ensemble, headed by the great Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, was testament to her talent, spirit, preparedness and application. 

Dix is more than familiar with the backstage and rehearsal rooms of the Met Opera. Since 2015 she has covered major roles sung by notable singers including Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. It began with Elvira in Ernani, then Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux, Elettra in Idomeneo, and the title roles of both Norma, and Semiramide. At short notice any of these taxing roles could have become Dix’s unscheduled debut. Judging by Friday night’s performance, you sensed that they were in capable hands.

As for Verdi’s work itself, you might think it’s all about one of literature’s larger than life characters, John Falstaff. But you could just as well make the subject of its story the bunch of women working together to outsmart this lecherous slob who’s trying to seduce two married women among them. Shakespeare’s title The Merry Wives of Windsor, on which Falstaff is based, reflects that. Serendipitous or not, it also happened to be International Women’s Day. Dix’s outstanding debut together with Alice Ford and her ladies’ resolve and zealousness was of sorts, a celebration of their achievement. 

Ambrogio Maestri  as Falstaff with Keith Jameson and Richard Bernstein 
English Director Robert Carsen’s comically quick and dramatically lucid 1950s update is thoroughly entertaining and a snug fit with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan-set story. In the ‘pleasantness’ of their lady-lunching lifestyle, the merry wives of Windsor are still rated as second-class citizens but empowerment and rights have slowly crept up. It also helps that Arrigo Boito’s libretto is so comically lively and visually evocative. 

The Garter Inn is a large hotel with the air of declining grandeur. The handsome oak-panelled set (Paul Steinberg), crisp costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) and tableaux-enhancing lighting (Peter Van Praet) present a marvellous visual solution. Alice Ford’s sprawling pastel modern 50s kitchen in Act 2, where the first plan is carried out to teach Falstaff a lesson occurs, received audible audience backing. When Ford and his men turn the kitchen inside out looking for Falstaff, cupboard contents fly across the stage in one of the production’s most memorable moments. 

In Act 3’s opening scene, the Garter Inn’s internal oak walls create a cornered space for the external setting alongside the Thames River. It seems a visual let-down after the detailed attention of previous scenes but the presence of a horse hungry for some hay adds comic uncertainty that just about upstages Maestri’s lone appearance as Falstaff bemoans his sorry state. When the oak walls separate for the final scene at Herne's Oak in Windsor Park, an atmospheric midnight starry-sky is exposed for Alice and Falstaff’s fateful rendezvous. It’s a marvellous setting with its chorus of caped masqueraders donned in antler-horned hats.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and
Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff
Teamwork was paramount and Verdi’s final opera got it with a genuinely unified cast and superlative comic timing. Dix was as perfect a fit with comic mannerism in the scheme to thwart Falstaff as she was in singing Alice with lushness and freedom. Those cheeky wandering fingers Melbourne Opera audiences met in Dix’s riveting Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux (if only the Met Opera audience saw what she could do with Elizabeth there), that warm custardy centre and buttressed soaring top she made an especially devastating highlight of in a thrashing final scene in Windsor Park - they spun their magic. Dix was rapturously applauded. And from colleagues Marie-Nicole Lemieux - a cavorting and crafty Mistress Quickly in powerfully sonic deep plummy voice - and Jennifer Johnson Cano - glamorous, rich and creamy voiced as Meg Page - came a cheery rose petal shower salute. In character and out, it was clear the trio shared a good rapport, as they did a celebratory dance and a bevvy or two.

South African soprano Golda Schultz was an absolutely divine and sparkling sung Nannetta, Alice’s daughter. Schultz paired splendidly with Italian tenor Francesco Demuro. The warmth and bright lyricism of his voice were well-suited to his youthful Fenton, portrayed as a formally dressed hotel waiter. Juan Jesús Rodríguez’s handsome burnished baritone as Alice’s husband Ford, Richard Bernstein’s ringing Pistola, Keith Jameson’s brawny Bardolfo and Tony Stevenson’s cloddish Dr Caius were all on their game and contributed excellently to the ensemble’s demands.

Francesco Demuro as Fenton and Golda Schultz as Nannetta
And what of Falstaff, that ageing old gluttonous fool deluded by his self-proclaimed unrivalled manliness? Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri was formidable. As a Falstaff of huge proportion, a playful falsetto, a theatre-filling voice and an unforgettable sight in repulsive, soiled onesie underwear, Maestri’s comic ease, his agility and guttural colours shone splendidly.

British conductor Richard Farnes offered bright and robust form to introduce Falstaff’s chaotic and speedy opening exchange with his shady henchmen. From there the score pulsed with jaunty life, including passages that swept its lyrical delights along with notable delicacy. The complete picture from stage to pit offered surprise, expertise and lush entertainment. 

And could it be that, in their symbolism of spiritual authority, Carsen incorporated the finale’s fantastic forest of antler hats in recognition of Falstaff’s triumphant women? I do believe so. And when Dix took her curtain call, before her on stage was a pair of antlers reaching for the sky in what may very well be an auspicious sign that takes her to new level. 

Metropolitan Opera
Lincoln Centre
8th March 2019

Production Photos: Karen Almond

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Highlights aplenty in Handel's freshly viewed and muscularly sung Ariodante from Lyric Opera of Chicago

Incisive, disquieting and sung with compelling muscularity and poignancy, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s updated and freshly viewed Ariodante is a Handel winner. Tuesday’s performance, second in a run of six, was in some respect the opening night that wasn’t to be, due to mezzo-soprano Alice Coote’s indisposition. As it transpired, an announcement before curtain, informing that Coote was recovering from the flu but wanted to sing, really wasn’t necessary. Digging deep, singing with convincing expressivity and bravura in the title role, Coote navigated the journey in Ariodante’s path from wide-eyed pristine love to heartbroken belief of betrayal and eventual 'joyous' reunion in a heroic performance that deserved the standing ovation received.

Alice Coote as Ariodante (centre) and cast in Handel's Ariodante
With an excellent cast across the board, accompanied by more than three hours of lusciously distilled Baroque music, Handel’s 1735 work comes with an imaginatively conceived and confronting adaptation by British director Richard Jones (realised by revival director Benjamin Davis) - a co-production with Festival Aix-en-Provence, Canadian Opera Company and Dutch National Opera. 

From its original royal Medieval Scottish setting, Jones’ update of the story to a small, idiosyncratic island community in 1970s Scotland, gives something to say in our times about the danger of close-minded groups and, notably, of discrimination and violence against women. Jones’ community is isolated and bible-bound, one where a woman’s value is measured by her service to men, where abuse appears tolerated and a sexual predator can hide as a preacher of God.

Ariodante is a working class scrubber in love with Ginevra, daughter of the island's governor (the King of Scotland in Handel's original). They have his blessing to marry but the depraved Polinesso (disguised in Jones's version as a visiting priest) desires Ginevra and deceives the home helper Dalinda, who has fallen for him, into disguising herself as Ginevra. Bragging to Ariodante that Ginevra loves him, a trap is set that reveals Ginevra (the disguised Dalinda) accepting him into her bedroom. The repercussions are damaging.

Brenda Rae as Ginevra and
Kyle Ketelsen as the King
The action takes place in three distinct adjacent rooms of a simple bungalow - kitchen, communal/dining area and bedroom. Though appearing as one large boxed space, each room has its own feel. ‘Invisible’ walls and doors respectively separate the action and guide character movements. Overall, an odd edginess pervades British set and costume designer Ultz and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin’s suitably evocative creation. 

Jones’ consistent use of pronounced theatricality and choreographed slow-moving and processional-like drama to extend, enliven and interpret the text is particularly successful in giving momentum and connecting action to the lengthy repetition of text in the Baroque 'da capo’ arias. Indeed, what showed was an exciting sense of Jones’ service to the music. Conductor Harry Bicket’s own careful balance of intensity and momentum ensured the drama remained alive and strident, aided by untiringly fine music-making in the pit - the strings especially sounding keenly reinforced. And, cannily, the baroque music and 70s update fused wonderfully, apart from Act 3’s trumpet fanfare where you might’ve half expected to hear folkish bagpipes (seen on stage) bellow a tune. 

Where ballet would exist in each of the three acts, the entertaining use of puppets mimicking Ariodante and Ginevra make comment on the what-ifs or what-will-be within the story. It’s a smart device that, with their operation by puppeteers and chorus, intensifies the sense of the tight-knit group. 

Eric Ferring, Alice Coote, Brenda Rae and Kyle Ketelsen
But there’s a not-quite-right-feel to this mostly feral knitwear-dressed background lot, giving the impression that inbreeding has caused degenerative affects. Dalinda comes across much the same way - raised in a remote environment where dignity was never granted her and which might explain her attraction to the disgusting, lecherous Polinesso. And without giving too much away after realisation that the accused Ginevra was in fact innocent, an interesting final twist suggests she understands that there are other places beyond. Of course, in this update, not far away in London in the 60-70s, a new generation were pushing their own agenda of freedom.

Coote’s broad palette of vocal colour and shade brilliantly powered the laddish and ardent Ariodante. Just when one lengthy aria was over and you couldn’t imagine another summit ahead, Coote knocked out another of equal or greater formidability. And within each of their lengthy stretches, the dynamism and subtle enhancements always engrossed, as demonstrated by Ariodante’s frozen and unbearable mental suffering in "Tu preparati a morire". Horrified, Ariodante waits disbelievingly outside Ginevra's bedroom as Dalinda (assuming it’s Ginevra), is sexually assaulted by Polinesso.

Heidi Stober as Dalinda
As the willowy, long red-haired Ginevra, Brenda Rae streamed radiance and polished ornamented top notes in a marvellous portrayal of hope and pathos. It was in her aching emotion that especially cut deeply in Act II's "Il mio crudel martoro", in which Ginevra is crushed by her father’s condemnation as a whore and sung as life is seemingly zapped from her. 

American soprano Heidi Stober gave all as the lost, ill-thinking Dalinda, to whom sympathy is easily extended. Often seen shrinking on the sidelines in apron, in her, Stober shared an inexplicable grace. Rich and vibrant in voice and pitching her coloratura with excellence, Act 1’s “Il primo ardor", became a pitiful grovelling expression of love for Polinesso.

As the Polinesso of two personas, countertenor Iestyn Davies’ adept flexibility and slick coppery tone worked its way to the creepy affect required. Kilted bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen raised the charismatic command of Handel’s ‘King of Scotland’ before the might of his authority came down on his daughter. And with Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio - in love with Dalinda - you got an insight into Ryan Opera Center scholar Eric Ferring’s promising career through the fervency and sincerity he presented, delivered with toasted marshmallow warmth and smoothness of line.

A long list of highlights should keep you comfortably in your seats but not to be missed is Act 3’s succession of breathtaking arias. First, Coote's "Cieca notte" sung with vocally athletic ease and gusto as Ariodante learns the truth of Polinesso’s deception, Rae's explosive coloratura in Dalinda’s remorseful “Neghittosi or voi che fate?", followed by Davies’ suave and impassioned, "Dover, giustizia, amor" in the crafty Polinesso’s offer to defend Ginevra’s honour.

For the ears alone, the dramatic strength and melodious turbulence of Handel’s Ariodante is worth it but, without seeing it, you would miss Jones’ eerily reimagined world that adds so much more. Highly recommended.

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Until 19th March, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Exceptional voices far outdo Ancient Rome's gold in L.A. Opera's The Clemency of Titus

Russell Thomas as Titus
Sung with exceptional form and beauty and served with an incredibly sumptuous eye-full, it turned out not to be so easy looking at Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito through 21st century ideas of Ancient Rome. It’s been a long wait for L.A. Opera’s audiences but this is how the company’s new production of Mozart’s final commissioned opera felt on Saturday’s opening night.

Despite being billed as The Clemency of Titus, the production uses the all-Italian libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, based on an earlier libretto by Pietro Metastasio. The translated title might be a way of making the work feel more accessible for an English-speaking audience. And even though its English surtitles lend an air of modern language usage that occasions the odd comic response, director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger acknowledges its original Ancient Rome setting, albeit deceiving the eye with sprinklings of neo-classical detail.

An impressive portal in an elegant architecture of freely employed classical elements and enough gold leaf detailing to draw oohs and aahs frames Strassberger’s saturated ancient exoticism. Lit up in a big-budget cocktail of colourful costume excess by Mattie Ullrich, JAX Messenger’s deliciously moody lighting and Greg Emetaz’s projections of neo-classical art, the many stage tableaux indeed strike powerfully. But lavishing the audience with an indulgent concoction of the ancient past doesn’t make the work any more accessible - and the longer in front of it, the more false it felt.

James Creswell as Publio and Russell Thomas as Titus
Supposedly whipped up in a mere 18 days, Clemenza was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II of Prague. Of course, showing regal duty and imperial character in a glowing light fit the order. So, obliging with the story of a benevolent ruler (Titus) who exonerates his best friend (Sesto) from an assassination attempt on his life, and the woman (Vitellia) who put him up to it, certainly demonstrates loyalty, compassion and backbone. Titus’ short rule (79-81 AD) was viewed favourably by historians of the period with one such account by Suetonius noting the remark, "Friends, I have lost a day.”, should he have not provided help to anyone in a single day. Leopold must’ve been honoured with the comparison, especially with such radiant music bestowed on him. Strassberger, I thought, had lost an opportunity. Most opera can successfully wriggle from its defined setting and this, for 2019, is one of them.

Still, for all the spectacle, what outshone most were the voices and music, all of which breathed utterly freely and satisfyingly. Just what was achieved with textural vibrancy and attentively punctuated phrasing in the overture, conductor James Conlon maintained over its two acts. The L.A. Opera Orchestra heeded the baton master excellently with faultless playing that exposed the beauty of the score and supported the singers well.

Elizabeth DeShong as Sesto and Taylor Raven as Annio
Exuding the stature of a noble warrior and outfitted in golden breastplate, tenor Russell Thomas was convincing in authority, virtuosity, disturbance and compassion as Titus. Full power when needed was there, as was the sensitivity of pianissimos. But Thomas’s most striking weapons were the voice’s quick flight through a range of colour, swirling and gargling notes in the most natural way and planting intent on every syllable of text.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong was stellar in the pants (that fit perfectly) role of Sesto. Matching exhilarating expressive vocal variety to every change in circumstance, DeShong’s passionate and troubled Sesto deservedly earned the mercy granted by Titus. In love with Vitellia and putty in her hands, DeShong’s confidently placed ornamentations added believable bite to Sesto’s thoughts and declarations. In agreeing to murder Titus, the words “I will be what you want me to be” became heartfelt and near-tragic in DeShong’s grasp as part of one of the opera’s many gorgeous arias, “Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”. With DeShong, Stuart Clark’s dashing, willowy basset horn accompaniment shared the spotlight.

As Vitellia, there was no holding back the vengeance with potent soprano Guanqun Yu in her solid opening duet with DeShong’s Sesto, “Come ti piace, imponi”. But in seeing Sesto accept punishment for his actions, Vitellia’s remorse breaks through and Yu captures it in class in Act 2’s “Non più di fiori” to further consoling basset horn playing, spoiled, however, by maidens handling her trailing red veil.

Guanqun Yu as Vitellia
Alongside the meat of the plot runs a romance that twists the drama between Vitellia’s sister Servilia and Sesto’s friend Annio. Succulent soprano Janai Brugger and strident mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven brought beautiful voice and credibility to their respective parts and James Creswell’s old oaky-voiced Publio made a commanding mark.

The rich mix of duets and trios that stud the score were sung with focus and effectiveness, recitatives drove interest and the L.A. Opera Chorus beefed up the soundscape impressively. With just five more performances remaining, it’s definitely worth going and sinking yourself into the extravagance but, like me, you might be far more blown away by the voices and music than all its gold.

The Clemency of Titus 
L.A. Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Music Centre
Until 24th March 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Mesmerising animation and a naked fairy star in Kosky's The Magic Flute at Adelaide Festival

For maverick Australian director Barrie Kosky, imagination and risk are as inseparable as, in the words of early 17th century English scholar Robert Burton, “a shadow to a body”. Then again, that might not be the best analogy since Kosky could pull the shadow from its entity as part of his unique brand of directorial stagecraft if he so wished.

Komische Oper Berlin, The Magic Flute
The untiring spirit, inventiveness and excitement that Kosky brings to the stage is now a given. Back in 2012, in the same season Kosky was appointed its Chief Director, a new production of W. A. Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder’s 1791 vivid fantasy and rocky road to love and enlightenment opened at Berlin’s Komische Oper. Conceived with Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt from UK theatre company 1927, in The Magic Flute Kosky took one of his greatest risks. 

In an article by Steve Dow for The Monthly, Kosky remarked when engaging 1927, “I said, ‘No, we can throw all that out (man in bird costume, man with flute, all the images you see in 90 per cent of productions) and completely reinterpret the opera in your visual language and the way we want to tell the story.’ So then they got excited.” So did I. I knew a little of the production, had understood that it had travelled widely in Europe, North America and Asia and had read enough supportive reviews of it. But I still had no idea what to expect at its opening night performance as part of the 2019 Adelaide Festival (in association with State Opera of South Australia).

With extraordinarily detailed animated projections by Paul Barritt (costumes by Esther Bialas and lighting by Diego Leetz), the era of silent movies and German Expression come crashing kaleidoscopically together. In the process, however, the work’s enrapturing balance of comic charm and depth of emotion that have earned it a place in the top 10 most performed operas, appears to be thrown out the window too. Barritt’s wild and wickedly clever animations strangle rather than elucidate the story. Brainstormed and knee-jerk interpretations are aplenty and likely unforgettable in their realisation. But almost every audience applause, chuckle and reaction accompanies the visually spectacular instead of its storytelling told through characters, voice and music. 

Komische Oper Berlin, The Magic Flute
When the curtain goes up at the end of the overture, the ‘silent movie’ begins, starring a handsome, smart-suited Prince Tamino (Aaron Blake). Escaping the wrath of a hungry dragon, Tamino sings away and waves his arms as his legs are animated in a runaway hurry through a spinning forest of trees - the first chuckle. That, and ending up in the dragon’s stomach with the Three Ladies (Mirka Wagner, Maria Fiselier and Nadine Weissmann), who evoke the music hall singers from Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 animated comedy The Triplets of Belleville and whose love hearts waft and wrestle for Tamino’s affection, begin just a tiny fraction of the creative team’s humoured approach.

The mustard-suited Buster Keaton-inspired Papageno (Tom Erik Lie) becomes fodder for a swathe of comic delights. Odd but nevertheless digestible, Papageno’s magic bells are a box of leggy chorus-girl cutouts that dance their spell over the evil Nosferatu-inspired Monostatos (Emil Ławecki) and his heavies - a scene that surely influenced Kosky's tap-dancing noses in his 2016 production of Shostakovich's The Nose - and come to his aid in his dark, but overly drawn out, suicidal moment. Roast chicken with gravy and pink elephant cocktails are his food and wine and his Papagena (Talya Lieberman), unsurprisingly, a chorus girl. 

Komische Oper Berlin, The Magic Flute
The ruthless Queen of the Night (Aleksandra Olczyk) is a giant spindly legged spider with a speck of a head, her diametric opposite Sarastro (Andreas Bauer Kanabas), an upright, top hat and tails kind of guy. And Pamina (Kim-Lilian Strebel), black-bobbed and starchily dressed as silent screen star Louise Brooks, shows the courage to ignore her mother’s command to kill the good Sarastro and join Tamino on his trials through fire and water. So why have a magic flute when you can marvel at the work of a naked fairy as she fleets about and leaves her trail of musical notes behind.

In this ‘silent movie’ vision - white screen and all with a few openings for entrances and exits among the animated swirl - the often drab spoken dialogue between Mozart’s radiant music is appropriately created in delightfully flowing titles to which Mark McNeill’s fortepiano accompaniment gives acoustic life. The music isn’t always a winning bridging device and neither are the often abrupt scene changes. And almost always it appears that characters are more effective at interacting with the animations than each other.

It even seemed that the cast and the pit were keenly aware that everything about this Flute has to do with its cornucopia of fantastic imagery. Despite the good musicianship from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conductor Jordan De Souza added little punch to the affair in what was a noticeably lukewarm reading. 

Overall, the singing similarly was tepid and inhibited. The exception was Strebel’s convincing and affecting Pamina to whom she gave a strong, secure and appealingly multi-coloured glow. The indisputable highlight belongs to Strebel’s morose but hauntingly sublime "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden". Believing that Tamino doesn’t love her, Strebel captured Pamina’s pain and solitary heart, sung within the powerful image of a snow dome as the snow turns to ash.

Komische Oper Berlin, The Magic Flute
For Tamino, Blake’s warmth and smoothness of tone lost form at the top of the voice. The diction was superb and crisp but Lie rarely set a spark to Papageno’s glorious melodies while Olczyk’s crystalline top notes pierced the air thrillingly as the Queen of the Night but the ferocity was turned down in her rage. Bauer Kanabas’ Sarastro and Ławecki’s Monostatos were sung with adequate intent but more impressive were the silken lines of the Three Boys (members of Tölzer Knabenchor) and the Komische Oper Berlin Chorus (Chorus Director David Cavelius) who lifted out textures rarely heard.

Despite the fact that so many of the zanily concocted scenes and images will etch their mark, the biggest question for me that lays over this Flute is what makes this concept especially suitable for the stage when the intent is so clearly in making a film. One day later, I’m loving what I saw. On opening night, after the first act, I almost wanted to walk away and not go back until I was ready again, like wanting to pause a movie, or give up on it completely. I’d be happy to see this Flute again with more refined music-making and easier-flowing scene changes. Regardless, once seen, it’s highly likely that you’ll never see another Magic Flute without imagining Kosky, Andrade and Barritt’s endearing naked fairy. 

The Magic Flute 
Production from Komische Oper Berlin
Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival 
Until 3rd March, 2019

Production Photos: Tony Lewis

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A festering drama alive with two powerful leads percolates in Opera Autralia's Werther in Sydney

There’s a festering tragedy you see coming and an unseen aftermath that looms palpably in Jules Massenet’s oft-performed 1892 French romantic ‘drame lyrique’ (lyric drama), Werther. In its 4-act episodic dramatisation that traverses the seasons, the prettier side of falling in love is as bare as the branches of winter’s trees.

Ensemble in Opera Australia's 2019 production of Werther
Loosely based on Goethe’s popular novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, a whirlwind of emotion grips the poet Werther when he escorts Charlotte, the daughter of the Bailiff, to a party. Charlotte swoons under his charms and momentarily forgets she is engaged to Albert, the good man she promised her deceased mother to marry. It doesn’t bode well and, though a degree of structural clumsiness pinches the plot, Massenet and his trio of librettists (Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann) deftly illuminate love’s circumstantial uniqueness and repercussions, how it can intoxicate with pleasure, cloud rationality, play with vulnerabilities and drive the agonised over the edge. 

In Opera Australia’s current season of Elijah Moshinsky’s long lasting 30 year old production, the drama percolates with superbly tempered emotional substance. It hasn’t come out of storage for 10 years. Michael Yeargan’s stylish set looks fresh - a stylish blend of classic and contemporary with classy costumes by Sabina Myers and evocative lighting by Robert Bryan - but it’s in its execution by the glowing talents of its artists that make it particularly special. 

Much relies on conductor Carlo Montanaro’s superlative attention in brewing Massenet’s musical soundscape of lush melodious textures and multi-faceted moods. The funereal tone of the first bars give way to sunny lyrical strings as Act 1’s summer scene opens at the Bailiff’s busy child-filled home. There and there on, the Opera Australia Orchestra supported the stage with refined and captivating musicianship, especially glowing and penetrating in Act 3’s orchestral intermezzo ("La nuit de Noël") as Charlotte, understanding that suicidal tragedy may follow, rushes off to Werther’s lonely abode.

Michael Fabiano as Werther and
Elena Maximova as Charlotte
It was in the grip of two unassailable leads, however, that the greatest impact was left. What I’ve seen of American tenor Michael Fabiano to date was eclipsed by a committed debut performance that fused character and voice in an exciting combination of genuine and compelling force. Fabiano brought kaleidoscopic colour and intensely wrought passion to Werther’s pitiful melancholic presence. Despite an early overheating of phrases, Werther’s wandering poetic introspection is captured with remarkably seductive tremolo in his Act 1 opening aria, “O Nature, pleine de grâce". In Act 2, Fabiano lifts the anguish of an inconsolable heart as Werther’s state of mind uncouples and he contemplates suicide with seesawing volcanic and delicate vocal power through “Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage". Urgency and dementedness are thrillingly displayed in Act 3 when Werther returns, understanding he has Charlotte’s heart but not her life to which "Pourquoi me réveiller?" is wrought with intent and longing. Finally, as he writhes from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Act 4, the demise is achingly felt before the last floated notes close one part of the tragedy. 

Curiously, Charlotte and her family see something in this misery guts of a guy that the audience doesn’t - references are occasionally made indicating how his absence is missed. But, alongside Fabiano, Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova makes believable the circumstances in Charlotte’s own troubled affair, highlighting just how equally vulnerable both of them are. Maximova affectingly crosses crest after crest of broad emotional responses with her sumptuous-voiced, darkly drawn, religiously devout and duty-bound Charlotte. From earlier mannered dismissiveness, in Act 3’s Christmas Eve setting as she rereads Werther’s letters, the pain unfurls in swirling, magnificent voice in “Werther! Qui m'aurait dit ... Ces lettres!". When Werther unexpectedly shows up, the pair are inextricably locked in an unforgettable and deeply personalised scene that showcases opera’s indelible strength. And you can’t help but sympathise with her for being blamed by Werther’s repugnant declaration that she is the cause of his actions.

Luke Gabbedy as Albert and
Stacey Alleaume as Sophie
There’s much to admire in baritone Luke Gabbedy’s polished tone, robust and outwardly assured Albert, not so much in his character’s rather haughty insincerity. Gabbedy let’s you feel the threat Werther is for Albert, coming powerfully to the fore in one of Act 2’s vocal highlight as the two share a man-to-man exchange to which Albert gives condescending form. He’s much the same with Charlotte, now his wife for three months, adding much to her dilemma in feelings she is reluctant to express. 

As Charlotte’s cheerful younger sister Sophie, Stacey Alleaume uses her sweet and sparkling soprano to great effect while balancing jollity with compassion and youthfulness with maturity. Smaller vocal roles eventually fade by Act 3 but Richard Anderson’s content and fatherly Bailiff and Nicholas Jones’ and Andrew Moran’s jovial, down to earth Schmidt and Johann adequately colour the edges. Individuality in character and radiantly unison are Charlotte and Sophie’s younger privileged siblings.

Much is mined in the direction of the core leads but a distracting awkwardness exists in the coming and goings of unknown friends. Not so in Moshinsky’s update which, while not necessarily reflecting our more progressive attitudes today, gives credibility to individuals and circumstances that reside in our times. 

Opera Australia 
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 11th March 2019

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Friday, February 22, 2019

Victorian Opera's Parsifal illuminates the stage as a work that has further bejewelled the city’s embrace of Wagner

Published online at Herald Sun 22nd February, 2018. No print version

Melbourne had waited long for Parsifal, Wagner’s final work he described as "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage". Victorian Opera’s season-opening production has further bejewelled the city’s embrace of Wagner. Now, in just six years, all 10 works of the Bayreuth canon have been staged in a phenomenal achievement with major contributions from Melbourne Opera and Opera Australia. 

Burkhard Fritz as Parsifal and Peter Rose as Gurnemanz
Artistic Director Richard Mills received a standing ovation. It was as much for the near 90-strong Australian Youth Orchestra who played expertly. Under Mills’ baton, Wagner’s spaciousness and contemplative signature on over 4 hours of music radiated and informed. 

Especially so did director Roger Hodgman’s non-specific modern period interpretation that brought clarity to every character and subtlety to its strong symbolic and religious overtones. 

The Medieval story concerns the wandering fool Parsifal, destined to become the saviour of the Grail Knights. Hodgman deftly turns the cogs of compassion and redemption driving it while accentuating good versus evil, where wealth is measured in spirituality. For it, Richard Roberts’ splendid fractured boxed set is spare and strikingly adapted.

After Act 1’s languid forest scene, a superb stage transformation leads into the full-thrust of ritualised drama in the Hall of the Grail. In flamboyant contrast, Act 2 shimmers in Klingsor's tempting domain – Derek Welton is as electrifying and kinetic as his wild costume. Tension erupts and harmony is restored in Act 3’s luminous ending. 

Derek Welton as Klingsor and Katarina Dalayman as Kundry
A string of fine performances, down to bit-roles too numerous, came from local and international leads. In the tile role, Burkhard Fritz’s muscled tenor became warmer and pliant as his journey developed from what was more slob than fool to commanding saviour. 

Katarina Dalayman drew a highly sympathetic Kundry - one seen as a pawn in opposing worlds - with a voice of distinctive stature and dramatic textures.

As Amfortas, James Roser was outstanding, working the text compellingly in his guilt, suffering and desperation for atonement. Veteran knight Gurnemanz’s assiduity and sincerity were smoothly combined by Peter Rose and Teddy Tahu Rhodes resonated hauntingly as Titurel. 

Kudos also to the large chorus of knights and lusty maidens. You’ll hopefully be required for more Wagner the city relishes.

Victorian Opera
Palais Theatre
Until 24th February, 2019


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Monday, February 4, 2019

Melbourne Opera's The Flying Dutchman takes to the stage with exportable class: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in edited form in Melbourne's Herald Sun 5th February, 2019.

With wind in their sails and augmented resources, Melbourne Opera’s new production of The Flying Dutchman opened in majestic form on Sunday evening with exportable class. Following successes with Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde, the company has now turned to the earliest of Wagner’s 10 mature works that make up the Bayreuth canon. 

Steven Gallop as Daland with Melbourne Opera Chorus
In it, the risks, adventures and livelihood derived from the sea are intensely painted across a music drama based on a legendary ghost ship. If sighted, it is a portent of doom. But Wagner utilised the myth to explore love and redemption, themes that recur throughout much of his work. 

Wagnerian specialist Anthony Negus presided in the pit, conducting the mercurial and multi-coloured three-act score into one seamless nautical beauty - just how Wagner had intended.

Fully fledged in Wagner’s work, Suzanne Chaundy’s impressively variegated direction gives clarity and sensitivity in a staging realised with striking stylised economy and folkloric feel. Chaundy deftly balances the sexes in a setting where men sail off to work and women are left behind. 

You’d have to possess some degree of desperation and craftiness as the roaming ghostly Dutchman and it’s written all over Englishman Darren Jeffery’s performance with thunderous heft in voice and stature. Steven Gallop’s burnished bass comes with complimentary authoritative strength as the greedy-eyed Daland, captain of his own ship. 

Lee Abrahmsen as Senta and Darren Jeffery as The Dutchman
His loving daughter Senta knows the commodity she is but acts on her own terms. Drawn in to see the myth through Senta’s emotions, the complex textures, determination, grace and thrilling voice to which soprano Lee Abrahmsen give her are terrific. 

Erik, believing he has Senta in reach of marriage gets luxury casting with passionate tenor Rosario La Spina. Roxane Hislop and Michael Lapina stud the list superbly as Mary and Daland's steersman.

A shipload of muscular-voiced roughened sailors and a brilliantly choreographed Spinning Chorus of delicately lace-voiced women complete the coastal setting. And when the sailors return home in Act 3’s cacophonous celebration and subsequent cloud of gloom, the impression you get is that no stage is unconquerable for Melbourne Opera. Deserved rewards from the government’s chest, however, would assist.

The Flying Dutchman 
Melbourne Opera
Regent Theatre 
Until 7th February, 2018

4.5 stars

Production Photos: Robin Halls

2b theatre's Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is an irresistible burst of entertainment and poignancy: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun 31st January, 2019.

You’ll be laughing through tears, riveted by the journey and brought to question what you would do if a stranger came knocking on your door late at night in Canadian-born 2b theatre’s Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

A show so easily transportable, it’s unpacked from a shipping container with human contents searching for a new life, looking for connection and building anew. Told through songs and short scenes, it’s an irresistible burst of entertainment and poignancy. 

From playwright Hannah Moscovitch, it traces the story of her great grandparents Chaim and Chaya, Romanian Jewish immigrants driven out of Europe by poverty and massacres in 1908.

Ben Caplan as The Wanderer 
Co-creator and musician Ben Caplan emerges as The Wanderer, an eccentric rabbi-cum-ringmaster of sorts and a consummate showman with a tremendously versatile voice. In a piquant mix of cabaret mode and neo-klezmer song, bushy-bearded Caplan shifts emotional energy effortlessly from the bleak and sentimental to the comic and bawdy. Caplan narrates, cajoles and flits about in anarchic abandon, picking up guitar and banjo for added musical spice. 

But the heart of the story resides in the container full of Old World artefacts where four musicians in simple attire make music together. From either side, two of them step into the low-lit space to channel Chaim and Chaya’s affecting story from their arrival in Halifax.

Dani Oore on clarinet is infectious as the gentle-souled and persevering Chaim, a man left bereft by the loss of his entire family. On violin as the dry and aloof young widow Chaya, who lost her first newly born during her flight to safety, Mary Fay Coady amuses to no end with brilliantly inflected, uncontrived comebacks. 

Watching their dynamics as the unlikely marriage unfolds, through to the awkwardness in their sexual intimacy and eventual birth of their first son and beyond, the window to their life is extraordinarily framed. It’s a story of truth, one of dedication and of remarkable survival. But broader, it’s a powerful statement on inclusiveness to which Moscovitch gives a loving patina and Caplan witty exuberance. 

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story
2b theatre company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 2nd February, 2019

Production Photos: Fadi Acra

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A welcome new Wozzeck for Opera Australia opens in a showering extravaganza in Sydney

A new Opera Australia production of Austrian composer Alban Berg’s harrowing psychological opera, Wozzeck, opened on Friday night at the Sydney Opera House. It’s a feast of extraordinary artistic stimulation of the highest level in a new, grandly signed William Kentridge production and a 90-minute showering extravaganza driven by an intensely passionate cast. 

John Longmuir as The Captain, Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck
 and Richard Anderson as The Doctor
Composed between 1914 and 1922 within which Europe was in the throes of being ravaged by World War I, Wozzeck was the opera Berg had to write. It was his first, premiering in 1925, and reflects his own affecting experience of war. It’s based, nonetheless, on the unfinished 27-episode play Woyzeck of 1837 by German playwright Georg Büchner. Themes of militarism, bastardisation and sadistic power play are the ingredients with which Berg forged 15 compact scenes that are divided equally across 3 continuous acts. 

A poor soldier of low rank who has witnessed the horrors on the field, Wozzeck is mocked by his superiors, cheated on by his lover (mother of his bastard child) and reduced to a redundant casualty of circumstance. As a mental breakdown unfurls, your heart goes out to him but sympathy is subsequently drained when, in a preconceived act of revenge, he murders his lover, Marie. In a broader view, in tandem with the devastation of war comes the breakdown of morals.

But how do you like your Wozzeck served? The last production mounted by Opera Australia premiered in 1999 when the imaginative mind of director Barrie Kosky created a spare, intensely expressionistic and intimately focused interpretation that elevated the psychological aspect. Kentridge’s lens is wider, his version less personalised, creating a contextualisation of Wozzeck’s crisis with a collage-like bombardment of film and projected images both photographic and sketched. The stage is made up of an intricate jumble of seemingly piled up bric-a-brac around impressions of a blown out home nestled upon it. And not a foot goes wrong when precariously steep duckboard walkways are traversed. 

Lorina Gore as Marie and Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck 
The creative team - designer Sabine Theunissen, costumes Greta Goiris, lighting Urs Schönebaum and projections Catherine Meyburgh - have collaborated to produce a highly fluid and technically accomplished art installation of sorts. Each scene is segued superbly. Decapitated heads, animated mechanical figures, unidentifiable faces in gas masks, a passing zeppelin and an enormous silhouetted crowd are some of the devices used to feel what Wozzeck sees within an array of spaces that balloon and contract and light up in explosive flashes. 

It’s a busy visual fare that might help to assuage a more melody-loving ear. But conductor Andrea Molino matches Kentridge’s gestures head on with Berg’s angular, atonal musical landscape as he sculpts an ever-present tension over the rises, falls and tumbles in the score. Between such strong, weighty components of visuals and music, the demands on the singers is enormous. It struck me whether singing in English rather than German was considered - surtitles would be one less area of the stage to look at, giving greater connection to the cast.

The first scene opens with gusto. Catching the eye and slicing the air in remarkable outbursts of superciliousness as the Captain, tenor John Longmuir took the role by the horns, gave it an electrifying shake and showcased the formidable vocal dexterity he possesses. 

John Daszak as The Drum-Major and Lorina Gore as Marie
After pairing in Opera Australia’s 2018 Green Room Award-winning production of King Roger - a similarly psychologically focused drama from composer Karol Szymanowski - baritone Michael Honeyman and soprano Lorina Gore brought conviction as Wozzeck and Marie. Stooped under a cloud of humiliation, Honeyman built his performance impeccably as the voice increasingly burned with half-declaimed text that was delivered in deeply furrowed lines. Gore effortlessly sailed to glassy penetrating highs as a pitiable, battling Marie. 

John Daszak, who performed in the production's premiere at the Salzburg Festival last year, spread his manhood wide as the pompous Drum Major with his full and roaring tenor. Oily bass Richard Anderson’s freaky Doctor, fine-grained tenor Virgilio Marino’s genial Andres and Dominica Matthews’ rough and ready Margret all made a good impression. And though his appearance is brief as the Madman, it was wonderful to see young tenor Shanul Sharma fit in among esteemed company. 

In the end, you could say Wozzeck gets his just desserts. Punished not by man, Wozzeck drowns in the nearby lake. Left behind is a parent-less child, a little puppet in a grotesque face-mask, his peers unfeeling and distant. Berg and Kentridge leave you with the sense that things are not going to easily change. 

Opera Australia 
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 
Until 15th February, 2019

Production Photos: Keith Saunders