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