Sunday, June 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Thursday, June 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, June 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Friday, June 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Brett Boardman