Sunday, October 13, 2019

An American post -revolutionary Marriage of Figaro full of vibrancy and colour opens at San Francisco Opera

When San Francisco Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro opened on Friday night, you couldn’t help but notice how colour impacted its four-acts over three hours of Mozart’s intoxicating music. With it, Canadian director Michael Cavanagh takes his audience on a comic rollercoaster ride in a period that reflects the time of the opera’s late 18th century premiere in 1786 - to “the heart of a post-revolutionary America” as the program notes indicate.

Serena Malfi as Cherubino, Michael Sumuel as Figaro,
and Jeanine De Bique as Susanna
When the curtain goes up, you’re made to feel right at home amongst the order and symmetry of Count Almaviva’s Jeffersonian-styled mansion but the elegance and beauty captured by its architecture are anything but reflected in either its rooms or the Count’s trying day and virtually everyone else’s for that matter. And as Cavanagh entertainingly untwists it’s intriguingly twisted plot in a vibrantly sung staging fizzing with chemistry, accidental or not, there’s a fabulously farcical play with colour in the mix too. Skin colour. And it gets tricky indeed.

Of course, there’s so much to brush aside in Mozart and Da Ponte’s sublime and intelligently conceived work as part of theatre’s suspension of disbelief. Should we also be sceptical of the so-called droit du seigneur, or a lord’s right to bed a female subordinate on her wedding night? Or believe that a servant girl had the education to dictate her lady’s letter? Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte give the servant class clout in a hard-fought battle with the aristocracy. Men in authority making sexual advances on women under their authority has a ring of contemporary relevance too. But all men need to be thwarted, including the young page Cherubino whose sexual appetite is inexhaustible and who Serena Malfi - one of four principals in house debuts - does a smashing good turn in the trouser role. Mozart makes you notice.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and
Jeanine De Bique as Susanna
So, are we meant not to notice that black singers Michael Sumuel and Jeanine De Bique, the pair marvellously rubbing their electric charms together, are cast as household servants Figaro and his sweetheart Susanna? It certainly paints a picture of class and colour distinction in a time when America was enmeshed with slavery. On the other hand, their eavesdropping servant comrades, a sharp singing lot, are pretty much white. And then there’s the Countess, elevated affectingly in a sensational company debut by plush soprano Nicole Heaston, who is black but who came into the role after white Irish soprano Jennifer Davis’ withdrawal.

If it seems to look confusing, the dividends come later when Susanna and the Countess trade identities to catch the Count out who, as a vexed and portly white man holding onto privilege, is given imposingly fortified baritone sturdiness from Hungarian Levente Molnár. Nothing, however, compares with the laughs that erupted when Marcellina, a hearty voiced Catherine Cook, and Don Basilio, an impressively resonant Greg Fedderly, discover that Figaro is their lost son, an impossible genetic outcome of black born from white. Colour, it turns out, plays a whopping big part in this American Figaro.

Especially so did palpable teamwork in acting and singing which ensured the briskness and intent of the drama was conveyed amply. Conductor Henrik Nánási led a sensitively drawn picture of sound below, somewhat overly guarded in the first act but lifting enormous expression from the oft-fleeting moods thereon.

As detailed as the intricate architectural drawings that screen the production, Sumuel sang with deeply crafted expressivity and authoritative vocal heft as the can-figure-it-out Figaro. As a cheeky Susanna, early in the piece De Bique occasionally lost projection in the bottom end of her sparkling soprano but her agile top range never faltered. As the Count, baritone Molnár’s comic chops stretched far, that is, until he falls to his knees in a touching gesture of shame before the wife he had betrayed. All one’s attention on Cherubino was easily given both because of Malfi’s smug and adolescent male on a randy rampage and her warm and mellifluous mezzo-soprano.

Nicole Heaston as the Countess and Serena Malfi as Cherubino
In what is a strong cast, as the Countess, Heaston gets extra praise for her performance, one that requires her character to communicate the widest range of emotion and to which she did with poise and refined vocal beauty. Heaston’s top notes effortlessly sailed over the orchestra but the power that she communicated in fragile pianissimo notes was unequivocal gold in the Countess’ Act 3 aria of loss, “Dove sono i bei momenti” (“Where are they, the beautiful moments”).

The creative juices of Erhard Rom (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes) and Jane Cox (lighting) combine in a delicious blend of adaptable spaces, quirkinesses and subtlety. Cavanagh, in all the deftly directed comic footwork he creates, couldn’t have asked for a more evocative scenographic picture. Neither could he have asked for a more debatable, precariously portrayed and, when the curtain comes down, a comically winning result. Perhaps, in no small part, it’s Mozart’s music - his arias, duets and all the up to his equally balanced octets, that irons out the issues for us. The question remains, how do you want to cast this in the future?

The Marriage of Figaro
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 1st November, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Waiting for the penny to drop in Opera Australia's haunting Ghost Sonata from Opera Australia: Herald Sun Review

Published in Herald Sun Melbourne online 26th September, 2019

Based on August Strindberg’s 1907 play and set to music by Aribert Reimann, Ghost Sonata is the type of work that extends the perimeters of what opera might be expected to be. Reimann’s 1984 chamber opera is a challenging 90-minute soundscape to reside in but it has a highly intellectualised approach in Opera Australia’s new production.
Shanul Sharma as The Student, Danita Weatherstone as The Young Woman
and Virgillio Marino as Johansson 

Within its festering mood is a story that spotlights the secrets and lies one harbours, to the extreme of creating a persona perceived as someone untrue to self. And what might be better, to hide behind lies for as long as we can or accept our lies and wither away? There doesn’t seem a way out.

It’s uncertain who is alive or dead in this psychological matrix as the characters fatefully come together for ‘The Ghost Supper’ where all is revealed. When they do, the fractured nature of the plot and its distinctive piercing shards of music seem to coalesce and offer a way forward.

A large angled mirror above the stage reflects the action in a way that creates two realities and is lowered after truths are revealed in Emma Kingsbury’s clever design. Ample opportunity is given to ponder over the work’s surrealism as part of Greg Eldridge’s haunting direction and manic blend of seemingly random vocal lines.
Richard Anderson as The Old Man, Dominica Matthews as The Mummy
 and John Longmuir as The Colonel

There’s The Student who wants to know what is wanted of him, sung with an excellently sharpened and tensile tenor by Shanul Sharma. Powerful bass Richard Anderson is persuasive in rendering the brusque and scheming nature of The Old Man and John Longmuir slingshots an impressive wiry tenor as The Colonel who’s not the noble he pretends to be.

Mezzo Dominica Matthews is a spectral charmer as The Mummy, a squawking pitiful figure who thinks she’s a parrot, and Danita Weatherstone is radiant as The Young Woman. Other roles are firmly delivered while Warwick Stengårds shapes precision and impetus in the score.

In a work bereft of melody, you might be waiting for the penny to drop. Perhaps it won’t but in giving something of oneself, its secrets just might be revealed.

Ghost Sonata
Opera Australia
The Coopers Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre
Until September 29

3.5 stars

Production Photos: Georges Antoni 

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Puccini's La bohème flickers its charms under director Barrie Kosky in a snapshot of heartfelt life at Los Angeles Opera

Nearing the close of the 19th century, when the speed of technological and industrial advancement must certainly have felt epoch-making, Puccini’s La bohème premiered at the Teatro Regio in Turin and quickly became popular. The work’s mix of carefree existence - notwithstanding the need for food on the table and heat for the winter  - the exuberance of youth, navigation through love and confrontation with death comes together in a richly woven dramatic and sensory story. All the more, it flickered its charms in Australian director Barrie Kosky’s new production which opened the 2019/20 and 34th season at Los Angeles Opera on Saturday.
Scene from Act II in LA Opera's  La bohème directed byBarrie Kosky

Kosky demonstrates a well-honed concept for his early photographic-inspired production, first unveiled early this year at his artistic home, the Komische Oper Berlin. Kosky keeps his concept alive, interesting and effective, and brings it together with a spread of superb emotional snapshots, setting the story not in 1830s Paris but around the time of its premiere in 1896 when a new century was looming. Nothing would suggest otherwise. And with it, in Kosky’s world, Christmas Eve at Cafe Momus feels as if freedom to be what you want to be and do what you want to do, is everyone’s right for a new century.

But imagine the impact and excitement of being able to pose for and hold onto a photo image of self at the time. An image that could live for eternity. Kosky more or less highlights, through photography’s capture of a moment in time, the story’s origins as a series of vignettes, based on Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème. It’s also used to dictate the imagery of Rufus Didwiszus’ stage design, in which early daguerreotypes of grainy portraits and street scenes provide a backdrop. The bohemians’ loft is a simple platform accessed from a hatch below and a boxed camera on its tripod becomes a brilliantly resolved focus for so much of the action. Alessandro Carletti’s refined lighting design adds further to create a picture of a nostalgic past and Victoria Behr’s costumes are a cornucopia of bustling style and intrigue. 

It’s as if Kosky reminds his modern audience that our Puccini bohemians aren’t so different from our own society’s preoccupation with photographing everything we do and the selfies we snap. He uses stills and forward-facing acted scenes for effect when you might expect more face-to-face contact. But Kosky is always gentle with the work’s heartbeat. Marcello, the artist, has taken to photography and his camera is used with complete natural intent by Rodolfo to capture an image of his newfound love, the tragically framed but spirited Mimì. When Mimì nears her final breaths at the end of Act IV, it doesn’t come as a surprise that her image is captured one last time, a poignant and lasting memory for both Rodolfo and the audience.

Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo and Marina Costa-Jackson as Mimì
On opening night, Kosky’s work fizzed with vitality and emotion, achieved through the outstanding breadth of talent who delivered both powerful and visceral vocals on stage and by the tireless team of musicians in the pit led buoyantly by James Conlon in producing an excellent and expressive-rich sound. 

Utah-born soprano Marina Costa-Jackson notched up a spectacularly memorable house debut as Mimì which no single photo could capture, her vocal modulation, sumptuous textures and audible confidence in all parts of the voice melding with glaringly vivid emotivity. Costa-Jackson’s Mimì is one part coy, two parts impetuous and unlimited in endearing mannerisms, making her impending death one difficult sobbing loss. There’s neither a note nor a moment that Costa-Jackson doesn’t make feel critical to the performance, her soaring large beauty making a phenomenal mark as she shares with Marcello the difficulty she has in dealing with Rodolfo’s jealousy, he having left her the night before, in Act III’s O buon Marcello, aiuto!—"Oh, good Marcello, help me!".

Dynamism and passion tempered with shots of tenderness and sincerity characterise Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu’s muscularly sung Rodolfo. Pirgu’s appealingly driven phrasing and clear diction - something that glistened across just about the whole cast - is unleashed with enormous life. Despite having reservations about his character’s sometimes-seen stunted attitude to love,  the chemistry shared between his Rodolfo and Costa-Jackson’s Mimì, in all its fullness and cracks, is palpable. And the kiss that closes Act III when they agree to stay together until the spring? You feel like jumping with them. 

Michael J. Hawk as Schaunard, Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo,
Kihun Yoon as Marcello and Nicholas Brownlee as Colline
While Rodolfo and his bohemian friends can be a tad unlikeable, they rise beyond all with hearts as big as an elephant’s in one of opera’s most compassionately drawn scenes when Mimì chooses to die amongst them. South Korean Kihun Yoon startles immediately as his smooth and turbocharged baritone brings brawn and stature to his Marcello. The shenanigans are elevated with boyish pranks by warm baritone Michael J. Hawk as Schaunard and impressive bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee. Hawk lost some vocal power alongside his comrades on opening night but his investment in tone and character are strong. Brownlee’s assured vocal bellows are at their prime in Act IV’s Vecchia zimarra—"Old coat", the funereal meter of the aria given a most heart wrenching preparation for death to come. Erica Petrocelli is all glamour and showiness as Marcello’s on-again-off-again lover, her silvery soprano having the flexibility to sing some dashing coloratura but not always sailing the heights of the music around her. The combined men’s, women’s and children’s choruses sound a jubilant treat.

It’s a decidedly rewarding production on many fronts and for those with a stack of old La bohème programs, this one will look great at the top. 

La bohème
Los Angeles Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 6th October, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Monday, September 9, 2019

A stirringly sung, orchestrally watertight and powerfully presented Billy Budd opens at San Francisco Opera

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd doesn’t see the light of day, or the darkness of the theatre to be more specific, as often as it should. It’s been 15 years since San Francisco Opera last staged it. That could be considered recent in comparison to its almost 20 year absence, until this year, from London’s Royal Opera where the opera premiered in 1951. Judging by the rigorous and insightful approach taken in a production new to San Francisco Opera - by way of Glyndebourne Festival where it took in two seasons of audiences in 2010 and 2013 - this Billy Budd from director Michael Grandage shows it to be the masterwork it is and might just be the highlight of the company’s 97th season.

John Chest in the title role and cast of Billy Budd
at San Francisco Opera
Set in the late 1790s during the Napoleonic Wars, Brit-born Billy is young, genial, adventurous and without family. He’s also devilishly handsome and a lowly subordinate which bring about the tragedy to come. He loves his life, is loved for many reasons by his crew and thought highly of by the ship’s captain, Captain Vere, whose strength of command and conscience is tested by the serrated edge of law. For in this shipload of sweaty men eager to sink the French, evil authority picks its target - embodied by the master-at-arms, John Claggart - and sets about to destroy the handsome lad who, by presence alone, appears to threaten him by unhinging suppressed homosexual desire. Accused by Claggart of mutiny, Billy is brought before Vere to defend himself but his stammer gets the better of him and, in a fit of frustration, lashes out at Claggart and knocks him dead.

The great tragedy of Billy Budd is manifold - of innocence preyed upon, of purpose confused or, worse, lost completely, of regretful actions and of blind belief. Most of all, as the turbulence builds towards its inescapable climax, it’s of preposterous injustice. Vere, lit up alone in the dark on stage in the bookended prologue and epilogue tells us so. Based on Herman Melville’s novella of the same name and grittily told through E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier’s libretto, the work’s success is in no small part due to its deeply constructed characters who inspire audience inquiry.

In an extraordinary looking tri-level monumental cross-sectioned hull of a man-o’-war as part of Christopher Oram’s stage design, isolation, containment and the predicaments that arise within its raw and oppressive hold are handled with rewarding tension-building theatrical muscle. Under revival director Ian Rutherford, it’s a production that has it all. It’s stirringly sung, orchestrally watertight and powerfully presented.

Christian Van Horn as Claggart and William Burden as Vere
Britten’s score heaves and swings to and fro with oft-times capriciousness and wide ranging orchestral textures to which conductor Lawrence Renes lent cutting clarity, rhythmic seduction and appealing fluidity on opening night. The orchestra obliged, playing with tremendous sensitivity.

Perfectly driving the drama, amongst his own unique writing, you can hear both Puccini’s influence on Britten and Britten’s influence on the likes of Adams. It was as if Britten drew upon Scarpia from Tosca to conjure the monster he created for Claggart, given formidable life by American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. Every time Van Horn appeared, amongst a cloud of cavernous brass, he owned the stage, he owned evil, his pathological brutality hardening his stance as the cane he wielded gave him the air of a macabre ringmaster taming his animals - and his voice of burning coals and fierce resonance seared its horrific intent brilliantly. Even when Claggart is dead and carried off from the claustrophobic vessel, it never felt like his evil had disappeared.

As much as you can feel Vere’s desire to command fairly - the lucent sound of the harp is often heard as his acoustic aura - he accepts that good has never been perfect. But perfectly suited indeed was tenor William Burden in the role, projecting his crisp and glowing tenor with breadth of character. Burden commands the stage in impeccably firm and considered style, portraying Vere’s dilemma in delivering justice - while acting against his conscience - poignantly in voice and body. And the contrasting vocal shades Burden gives in both prologue and epilogue, as the aged and erudite Vere looks back on the the affair, added compelling substance to his reflection on failing to prevent Billy’s execution.

John Chest in the title role of San Francisco Opera's Billy Budd
If I wasn’t completely won over by American baritone John Chest’s company debut in the title role initially, what was to come more than compensated. Chest is a picture of youth and looks for the part, covering the ship with boundless energy and making a convincing case of Billy’s absolute commitment to king and county. The voice is golden, burnished and airy with a seriously appealing timbre that suits Billy’s character, however, what sometimes let him down was murky diction that left him in the shadows of two champions in total command. Still, Chest decked out “And farewell to thee, old Rights o’ Man” sensationally and in “Billy in the Darbies” he brought astonishing wrought emotion to the music in one of the great highlights.

Excellent performances came from an accompanying crew numbering more than 70 strong male voices. Philip Horst’s Mr. Redburn, Christian Pursell’s Mr. Ratcliffe and Wayne Tigges’ Mr. Flint stood out robustly in their smart-uniformed higher ranks. Brenton Ryan as the beaten young and manipulated Novice and Philip Skinner as harmless old Dansker were highly effective too and the chorus mustered up exceptional vocal beauty from light waves of sacred-like chants to bursts of cyclonic force. In all, Grandage’s Billy Budd is an experience that both satisfies as a piece of superlative drama and bares its tragedy with unequivocal power.

Billy Budd
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 22nd September, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Monday, August 26, 2019

Aviation and operatic history take flight together once again in an unfussy and beautifully cast revival of Barry Conyngham's Fly from Melbourne Lyric Opera

Two flights of stairs below ground level at central Melbourne’s fourtyfivedownstairs, an Australian opera took to the stage for the first time since it premiered 35 years to the day. Composer Barry Conyngham’s Fly, about Australian aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave, was commissioned by Victorian State Opera for Melbourne’s newly built State Theatre which opened in 1984. Since then, the state opera company has been drastically reshaped and pared down considerably. To some extent, Conyngham’s Fly has too, but nothing feels lost in small local enterprise Melbourne Lyric Opera's unfussy and sensitively lit staging that retains the work’s musical integrity and is beautifully cast with a strong vocal outfit. Sadly, it appears Fly won’t be recorded for the nation to listen to on ABC Classic FM and that’s the disappointment.

Sam Roberts-Smith as Lawrence Hargrave
For those who handled the Australian $20 banknote between 1966 and 1994, the white-bearded Hargrave, surrounded by some of his gliders, was a familiar sight. A NSW coastal road that begins near Stanwell Park, where Hargrave flew his varied apparatus, is named after him, as is a Qantas A380. Fame, however, was the last thing he sought. And make no mention of patents because Hargrave wouldn’t have a bar of them, much to his wife’s annoyance. We learn this through Murray Copland’s direct and informative libretto in which Hargrave’s story is told in just 4 episodes. Its 80-minute duration, however, feels generously ripe and, in combination with Conyngham’s delightfully and deeply evocative music, Hargrave’s intelligence, mild eccentricity and humility radiate through.

Based around his home with his wife and three children, far more is explored than merely biographical storytelling. The two-act work moves from 1904, soon after the first successful manned flight, to a scene on New Guinea’s Fly River in 1876 when Hargrave was an engineer on Italian Luigi D’Albertis’ expedition and finally at his home in Woollhara in 1915 where news of the death of his only son Geoffrey at Gallipoli is received. It’s an achingly emotional conclusion for a man who demands his son’s name never be mentioned in his presence - tellingly, Geoffrey is a figure mentioned and never given form - and who recognises the race against death to share the fruit of his perennially inventive mind. Just as he believes Geoffrey died doing his duty, we presume Hargrave will too, doing his.

Shakira Dugan as Meg and Caroline Vercoe as Mrs Hargrave
In Lara Kerestes’ keenly perceptive direction, a sense of both drama and immediacy is created that glides along effortlessly and variably, from the hypnotic reading of Hargrave’s notes to candlelight by his wife and daughters Olive and Meg around ripples of music to the altercation between Hargrave and his wife over his disinterest in patenting his designs and the poignantly played out arrival of the priest who bares bad news. Around a simple design concept by Zunica that draws inspiration from Hargraves’ strung lightweight devices, the cast work wonderfully with her.

As Hargrave, Sam Roberts-Smith is in view most of the time, even when not singing, and when he finally comes forth from having been working at the rear, his baritone launches with well-oiled smoothness firing resonance and power to revel in. Further, in an Aussie accent that marks place like no other, Roberts-Smith’s interplay with his characters deftly shows Hargrave’s behavioural changes in the relationships around him, making engaging three-dimensionality of the man known to be called the mad kite flyer.

Sam Roberts-Smith as Hargrave and Cameron Silby as young Hargrave
Often seen frowning as his wife Margret, treasure-rich mezzo-soprano Caroline Vercoe gives a compelling performance that exposes the heart of her character with an aching sense of melancholy, usually singing at her husband rather than to him in her frustration. Shakira Dugan is the most effective in being understood, her lighter mezzo-soprano delivering pristine diction with vocal elegance and flexibility as the matter-of-fact, slightly sarcastic Meg. Lisette Bolton soars with dreamy delight with her pure and bright soprano that perfectly suits the wide-eyed and cheerful Olive. In the central scene on New Guinea’s Fly River that plays out a tad too long, a fine muscular tenor accompanies Cameron Silby’s earnest young Hargrove and warm baritone Cameron Taylor drips with mistrust as a sinisterly Luigi D’Albertis.

The ethereal threads, intoxicating translucency and uplift of tension in Conyngham’s music are brought to highly satisfying heights in artistic director and conductor Pat Miller’s resolute and tactful approach. Electronic keyboard players Louis Nicoll and James Dekleva add particularly fine atmospheric colour, as does Kim Tan on flute, alto flute and piccolo amongst the Lyric Ensemble of nine. Barry Conyngham was there to take a bow as well. Let’s hope he has the opportunity to do so again in the not too distant future.

Melbourne Lyric Opera
fourtyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Until 1st September 2019

Production Photos: Lachlan Woods

Saturday, August 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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