Tuesday, December 26, 2023

                  The 7th Annual OperaChaser Awards 

- 2023 -

Revealed via Twitter @OperaChaser and Facebook on 27th December 2022, 
commencing at 5pm,

Hawthorn, Victoria.

The 7th OperaChaser Awards, as in previous years, are an opportunity to reflect on the year and are dedicated to all those who have contributed in sharing their artistic and creative pursuits in nourishing their audiences with immeasurable meaning and lasting enjoyment. 

As always, thank you to all involved in creating the ephemeral beauty of opera in performance. Again, there is neither a flash ceremony nor a trophy to go with it but I sincerely hope that these awards bring a little pleasure to the deserved artists who bring excellence to the art of opera and all who continue to dig deep into their artistic, dramatic and creative energies. 

OperaChaser Award for Outstanding Production, Melbourne:
Der Ring des Nibelungen, Melbourne Opera 
Photo:Robin Halls

OperaChaser Awards, Melbourne

I am pleased to announce the winners of the 7th OperaChaser Awards, 2023.

Outstanding Production
Der Ring des Nibelungen, Melbourne Opera 
Director: Suzanne Chaundy
Conductor: Anthony Negus

Outstanding Opera in Concert
Satyagraha, Opera Australia
Conductor: Tahu Matheson

Outstanding Director
Constantine Costi
Melbourne, Cheremushki, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Conductor 
Anthony Negus
Der Ring des Nibelungen, Melbourne Opera 

Outstanding Male in a Leading Role 
Warwick Fyfe
Wotan/Wanderer, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Melbourne Opera 

Outstanding Female in a Leading Role
Helena Dix
Title role, Maria Stuarda, Melbourne Opera 

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Zoy Frangos
Gordon, The Visitors, Victorian Opera 

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Olivia Cranwell
Elettra, Idomeneo, Victorian Opera

Outstanding New Australian Work
The Visitors, Victorian Opera
Christopher Sainsbury (composer) and Jane Harrison (librettist)

Outstanding Ensemble
Melbourne, Cheremushki, Victoria Opera

Outstanding Chorus
Melbourne Opera Chorus
Maria Stuarda, Melbourne Opera

Young Developing Artist
Sunny (Zhuoyang) Li
Sarastro, The Magic Flute
Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, VCA, University of Melbourne 

Outstanding Set Design
Andrew Bailey
Der Ring des Nibelungen, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Costume Design
Sabina Myers
Melbourne, Cheremushki, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Lighting Design
Rob Sowinski
Der Ring des Nibelungen, Melbourne Opera

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Director Kasper Holten's thought-provoking Lohengrin returns with superbly sung performances at Deutsche Oper Berlin

In 2026, it will be 150 years since the Bayreuth Festival was inaugurated. To celebrate the anniversary, the entire Bayreuth canon — the last ten of the thirteen operas that Wagner completed — will be performed. Further north, in a city boasting three major opera companies and, in a sign that Wagner’s works continue to inspire examination and be perceived with relevance, Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) is currently on their way to doing just that.

Jennifer Davies as Elsa, Davic Butt-Philip as Lohengrin and
Ryan Speedo Green as Heinrich with Deutche Oper Berlin Chorus

Given that 2023 marks the 210th anniversary of Wagner’s birth in 1813 and 140th anniversary of his death in 1883 (just shy of his 70th birthday), one could assume that, unofficially, here is reason enough for the undertaking. Following on from the opening of Der fliegende Holländer the previous evening, director Kasper Holten’s now more than 10 year old production of Lohengrin offers ample thought-provoking satisfaction once the tide turns after an initially languorous Vorspiel and generally lacklustre Act 1. 

That’s not to say the music followed suit on opening night. Excellence from the DOB musicians throughout and conductor James Conlon’s fine leadership and attention to textural richness and emphatically shifting dynamics ensured Wagner’s score was brought to radiantly transcendent life. The crescendos notably stood out for their detailed and rousing affect, not least the first emotionally charged one in the Vorspiel, which Holten matches to the scream of a young woman after having found her dead loved one on a corpse-strewn battlefield. And the majestic, glinting quadraphonic brass sound reverberating from all corners of the theatre in the final act as Lohengrin fronts the king, Heinrich der Vogler, to divulge his identity before all is certainly worth a mention. 

What Holten does best is seize upon and question the broadly iterated concept that faith in god in particular and loyalty and love for the homeland as being paramount should neither be blindly accepted nor go unchallenged. After the heroic Grail knight Lohengrin (David Butt Philip) arrives in a backlit haze wearing a long white skirt and shouldering giant white feathered wings to intervene and come to the rescue of the falsely accused noblewoman Elsa von Brabant (Jennifer Davies), the aura of an allegorical Christ figure becomes increasingly fixed by the text and disturbingly dubious in reality in Holten’s alternative interpretation. Elsa, who must never ask Lohengrin’s name or where he is from must rely on the faith in love she has for him. 

But that faith is poisoned by the devil-like Ortrud (Yulia Matochkina) and her manipulated husband Telramund (Jordan Shanahan) to the extent that, like the sinful Eve she is portrayed to be, she is banished from the love she believed in and seeks forgiveness in her plea of “Eternal God, have mercy on me!”. Holten clearly asks the rational question, what grave wrong has Elsa done and he does this by audaciously shaping a Lohengrin, angelic as the portable wings make him so, a less kindly and sincere type. Holten’s ongoing questioning is always omnipresent in a time and place that is seemingly purposely fuzzy as part of set and costume designer Steffen Aarfing’s muted coloured world and Jespe Kongshaug’s low-intensity lighting. 

At a stretch, a World War I era flavour hangs over it. Brabant’s men are injured and weary, its women desperate and, in spite of the king (Ryan Speedo Green) they honour, all are ready and willing to cling to, in trance-like collectivity, the mystique of Holten’s saviour — secretive and potentially dangerous but which the people fail to see. Holten makes his point but the constant and clumsy marshalling and insincere hand gesturing of the men and women of the chorus are hard to take seriously. The all round high quality singing never falters but the six principals, including Dean Murphy as the King’s Herald, virtually sing on their own deserted island and barely find a connection in Act 1. That the Act 1 finale concludes in a feeble strike of light and duel of swords, resulting in Lohengrin sparing Telramund’s life before being surrounded in an arc of comical outstretched arms haling him as their trusted hero, leaves much to be desired. 

Julia Davies as Elsa, Yulia Matochkina as Ortrud an the Deutsche Oper Berlin Chorus

But the dramatic pulse fired in Act 2 and beyond. It is no accident that against the drama, a massive angularly suspended cruciform looms over Ortrud and Telramung while simultaneously appearing to test faith as the symbol of a fallen cross, before becoming the foundation for Lohengrin and Elsa’s wedding when laid to the floor. With Lohengrin and Elsa’s wedding interrupted twice, first by Ortrud and then by Telramund, Holten firmly cements the authority of his saviour. 

The ongoing imagery is powerful. In Act 3, with Elsa’s persistence to know Lohengrin’s identity in the privacy of the bridal chamber, comes the idea that Elsa’s fate appears sealed as bed becomes tomb. And later, not for the first time, Lohengrin reacts with quick aggression towards Elsa before abandoning the people who so expected him to lead them to a victory. Holten’s brilliant shock denouement comes with Elsa carrying the decomposed body of her brother Gottfried, who she was accused of drowning, and laying it atop the tomb. Mercy sought, one could surmise, derives from the guilt of responsibility for his death, not in the sin of demanding to know who Lohengrin is. 

English tenor David Butt Philip meets the complexities of both the diversely expressive vocal palette and characterisation of Holten’s Lohengrin, mining a chameleon quality of sorts from the golden and lyrical aspects of the voice to its demonstratively hefty limits. Irish-born Jennifer Davies’ pure, rounded and impressively tempered soprano and expression-rich portrayal of sensitivity of heart and strength in the face of doubt brings much agency to Elsa’s buffeted trajectory. Together, Butt Philip and Davies create a memorable duo in realising the beauty and nuance of the sung text and elevating underlying tensions not commonly encountered. 

Jennifer Davies as Elsa, Yulia Matochkina as Ortrud and 
Jordan Shanahan as Telramund

Russian mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina manifests everything desirous of a scheming and dark-souled Ortud, her considerably striking and full-bodied sound blotting the drama with exciting impact. As Ortrud’s submissive and honour-stripped Telramund, Hawaiian baritone Jordan Shanahan is especially successful in combining every ingredient for a convincing performance with effectively wrought acting and incisive vocal effectiveness. 

If Holten’s Heinrich is intended to look dignified but lack absolute authority — and the idea certainly suits his questioning perspective — Ryan Speedo Green’s grand, rumbling and thoroughly captivating bass resonates otherwise. An affable air accompanies Dean Murphy’s resplendent sounding Herald and there is ample opportunity for the DOB chorus, despite their often automated-like direction, to highlight their polished harmonies to music that beautifies and propels Wagner’s score. 

 In some way, Holten takes the position that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is and makes both an absorbing and appealing contribution to Wagner’s briefly described title as simply being a Romantic opera in three acts. 

Deutsche Oper Berlin 
Reviewed 29th October 2023 
Also on 19th and 25th November 2023

Production Photos: courtesy of Deutche Oper Berlin

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Ideas touching, playful and entertaining flood director Damiano Michieletto's new production of The Tales of Hoffmann in Sydney

As if to drive its point to make sense of its almost three hours of vivid theatre, the closing moments of French composer Jacques Offenbach’s divinely orchestrated score for The Tales of Hoffmann ring out,  

“We grow strong through love but through tears we are stronger tomorrow.”

For sad and sorry, alcohol-dependent poet and titular character Hoffmann, it might be some consolation after a train wreck of a love affair with a woman he seemingly has Buckley’s chance of ever sharing a life with.  

From the explorative and restless mind of Italian director Damiano Michieletto, the melodious power and richness of Offenbach’s music is a springboard for an imaginative staging that not only captures the essence of the work but floods it with ideas touching, playful and entertaining. 

Iain Henderson as Spalanzani, Jessica Pratt as Olympia 
and the Opera Australia Chorus

In Michieletto’s grasp, Offenbach’s late 19th century opera fantastique effectively channels the desire to love, and loss of it, in the context of a celebration of an artist’s creativity and value. In Offenbach’s works — he died leaving a feast of more than 100 operas — optimism and spark run freely. In The Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach’s final opera he never got the chance to see premiered, something good comes out of a bad situation. 

The resources of five international opera companies have invested in Michieletto’s ideas — Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Fondazione Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, Opera National de Lyon and our own Opera Australia which has finally debuted the production after a Covid-causing calendar hit.

It’s a wild but poignant ride through Michieletto’s satisfyingly tweaked interpretation, placing the audience in  Hoffmann’s absinthe-sozzled existence as a beanie-topped, unkempt and downbeat Hoffmann bares his soul.

In love with the opera diva, Stella, Hoffmann recounts his loves of Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta to a raucous bunch of men in a bar during the interval of Don Giovanni — it’s likely they wouldn’t be returning. 

Michieletto returns Hoffmann to the school classroom where a schoolboy infatuation with Olympia, a beautiful young girl who is really an AI-gifted automaton, sees Hoffmann mocked at by his classmates. The ill young woman Antonia, usually a singer, is brilliantly conceived as an unwell ballet dancer who can barely stand up and Giuletta is a Hollywood-like blonde bombshell under the control of her pimp. To go out on a limb, it’s as if Michieletto highlights the loss of mind, body and soul as individually represented by the intelligent but emotionally dead Olympia, the physically challenged Antonia and the controlled and conscience-starved Giulietta respectively. It’s one way to make sense of what otherwise is a circus of delights.

Agnes Sarkis as Nicklausse and Iván Ayón Rivas as Hoffmann
Six flamboyant dancers breezily weave through the storytelling, Antonia’s home incorporates ballet classes for young girls, a little stage magic is thrown in and there’s a man on stilts that adds to the partying and fun. Hoffmann’s closest friend, Nicklausse, is a pet macaw and his guiding muse a glamorous glitter-sprinkling Mary Poppins-like vision.

Utilising the same creative team that brought Rossini’s Il viaggio à Reims to art gallery life for Opera Australia in 2019, creatives Paolo Fantin (sets), Carla Teti (costumes) and Alessandro Catletti’s (lighting) results sum up to a spatially interesting and effective, aesthetically lush and slick view into an undefined post 19th century setting. Importantly, Chiara Vecchi’s choreography illuminates the story with ongoing vitality and surprise, working a seamless treat with Michieletto’s meticulous directorial eye which demands much of his team. Everyone, including the committed Opera Australia Chorus meet them wonderfully. The total effect dutifully evokes the fantastique of the work. 

And, if opera is all about the quality of the music and singing, every opera-goer wins. While attentions always turn to any soprano taking on the challenge of singing all four heroines — and Jessica Pratt is a stellar fit for all four parts — the titular character Hoffmann is in exceptional hands with Peruvian tenor Iván Ayón Rivas. With the vocal charisma, vigour and depth of feeling he conveys in his Hoffmann, Ayón Rivas shows what a star performer he is, a mere 30 year-old talent and set to impress for decades to come. Amongst others, Ayón Rivas has studied under Juan Diego Florez and it shows. 

As Stella, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, Pratt combines blissful operatic seduction with excellent acting. First, skyrocketing her appeal as a prettily dressed Olympia with precision, clarity and thrilling staccato and trills in “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” (opera’s sparkling “Doll Song”), Pratt follows up with a devastatingly sung display of the hope and hopelessness in Antonia’s test of strength.  

Then, as Giulietta, Pratt not only maintains the power and freshness of voice she begins with, but demonstrates her ability to autograph her music with unique beauty. The insertion of the seductive coloratura aria, “L’amour lui dit: la belle”, proves the perfect vehicle  to showcase both Giulietta’s attitude to love and Pratt’s translucent, flexible instrument. 

Marko Mimica as Coppelius
Croatian bass baritone Marko Mimica brings a handsomely burnished voice to the party, relishing the four villainous parts as Hoffmann’s nemesis, Lindorf and reappearances as Coppelius, Doctor Miracle and Dapertutto. Agnes Sarkis never ceases to endear as Nichlausse the macaw, Sian Sharp elegantly charms as Hoffmann’s muse and characterful tenor Adam Player is a hit in his four incarnations alongside a long list of thoroughly committed and entertaining artists. 

The Opera Australia Chorus are not only kept on their toes but raise the roof and spirits enormously with their harmonious, terrifically shaded sound. The entire vocal score is buoyantly supported by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire and a finely balanced Opera Australia Orchestra sparkle in the pit, even in the face of a minor technical glitch as the Prologue was about to commence at Tuesday’s performance. 

Two more performances remain before it’s packed up for a season at Teatro La Fenice in November with Iván Ayón Rivas reprising the title character but minus a singular soprano singing all leading female roles. That alone makes getting the chance to see Jessica Pratt in Michieletto’s imaginative production somewhat extra special.  

The Tales of Hoffmann 

Opera Australia

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Until 22nd July 2023

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

Friday, June 16, 2023

The Good People of Ireland


Today, I left the Emerald Isle where the Irish are supposedly known for their hospitality. It’s real! And the time of day they’ll give to you is priceless. Now I know where Mum got her reputation for being such a great hostess and for loving a good chinwag.

There was Mary Clancy, god bless her, a kind old soul waving the sign of the cross across her face in Dublin, engaging with gusto about some Father so and so. And, as the minutes passed, I went from understanding 75% of what she was enthusiastically conveying down to less than a quarter as she wore me down.  

There was the super standout customer service Qantas would crave from the barmaid at Roscrea’s Lilly’s Oun Pub who, when I asked her if the pub served food, she said no but was happy to cross the road to get me the menu from the White House Pub across the road — I’d eaten there the night before. 

Then, there I sat with a 1/2 pint of Guinness while the lamb cutlets and veggies, with gravy boat to add, were carried across the road and came with a smile. While the room full of lads screamed over the hurling match, I sheepishly ate my dinner. 

There was old George the TFI Roscrea-to-Nenagh bus driver, who wasn’t particularly savvy at operating the ticket machine but had time for a great yarn and offered to take me to the door of my B&B about a 20-minute walk away from my destination — he was familiar with Marie, the lovely host. I was on my way elsewhere, to some ancestral piece of land I’d ascertained to be the most likely place where great great grandfather Patrick Maher grew up on, but thank you anyway, George! 

At little Moneygall’s famed Ollie’s Bar where Barrack Obama drank, Eugene, the hairy, square-set drain digger, friendly as he was on a Sunday afternoon of hurling-filled sports coverage on the screens, offended the only young lady in the room after which she and her male friend moved along. And when Eugene landed into conversations on boxing, I was way out of my comfort zone.

It was Maureen Condon, I believe, at Castletown Cemetery outside Toomevara, who came to lay flowers at her husband’s well-kept grave, telling me he’d been unwell for some time, died from diabetes and that you’re never prepared for death. She is so right! 

Thank you, Eileen and Tracey, the endearing tour guides at Roscrea Castle, who told me that the gates of the 13th century Roscrea Castle and doors of the 18th century Queen Anne style Damer House in its grounds had just opened for the first time since 2020. And I, quite fortuitously, was the first visitor to take the tour which was free because Tracey was in training and taking notes from Eileen’s exceptional performance. She did, however, have me when, before entering the main bedroom of Damer House, she remarked, “When we’re done in the bedroom, I’ll show you the servant’s staircase.” The brazen hussy! 

In Scariff, Michael Grogan, a traditional Irish music teacher and player, who I saw several times outside his double storey Georgian styled home on the lands stained by the hardship of life at the former Scariff Workhouse, shared his enterprising story that has in many ways saved what ruins remain.    

There was 36 year old Shane Hogan, beef cattle farmer with over 120 head on a 100 acre farm just before the turn off to Feakle and Killanena at Pepper’s Bar, the descendant of a Moloney and who happily gave his time telling me about his farm buildings built about the time of the Great Famine years. 

There was incredible Jeremy, the Killaloe council worker at Twomilegate, at the shores of Lough Derg, who made sure my bicycle was safely locked away after my 10km cycle there — mostly downhill — while I went off to do a walk on the Ballycuggeran Loop. When I got back he insisted on buying me a ‘cone’. I forgot to tell him we call them Dairy Queens. Probably just as well! 

Between Tuamgraney and Killaloe, Kay O’Brien bought an old stone building more than 20 years ago, formerly a Church of Ireland church built in about 1810, and her engineer husband renovated it with the utmost sensitivity. Oh, and there was her gorgeous dog Darcy, who stuck like glue the moment I gave in to his obsession with retrieving a tennis ball. 

The saddest story I heard during my almost 4 weeks in Ireland came from kind old Myra Moroney who I was incredibly fortunate to stay with on my last night in Tuamgraney. Before I’d even seen my room I learned about the death of her daughter Suzanne in a fire at their family home that stood where we were and Myra agonisingly trying to pull her body out. Myra, her other daughter Caroline and son Austin are now just getting to terms with the loss of her husband and their father, Dennis.

I can’t forget Declan, who picked me up at the edge of Tuamgraney after I was obviously waiting in the wrong spot for a bus to Ennis via a change in Tulla — Irish rural villages could do with investing a few euros into a simple pole with a bus sign attached. Before driving along, there was a quick stop at the petrol station to pick up a coffee and Declan wanted to buy me one and refused my offer to buy his. To Tulla we went and, without too much trouble, my rekindled hitchhiking past was at it again with a lift from septuagenarian Pat, I’ll call him that, an uncommonly quiet sort who had me at my Ennis AirBnB ahead of schedule. 

Thank you, Mike, the Limerick bus driver who got me free of charge to Limerick Bus Terminal because the stop for Cork I was waiting at never saw the scheduled bus. On top of that, there was the recommendation of a place around the corner to buy snacks for the trip at far better prices than those in the station and, if I’d wished to relieve myself, there was a decent pub nearby where the loos were a far better option than the ones at the station frequented by drug users.

There was dear Kathleen English who I’d approached at Ardifinnan’s St John the Baptist Church and who, one hour later, I encountered again in a kind of vision from heaven when she stopped her car a few kilometres out of the village in the middle of quiet emerald Ireland and helped me with some ancestral advice concerning the location of the local townlands. 

On the lands of Killaidamee where my great great grandfather Thomas Scanlan lived and laboured, the young Lambert boys, who work in the mechanics business which their grandfather began, chatted without hurry and sent me on my way with water and a banana to continue the day’s cycling. 

And finally, to all those who I hardly expected to connect but no doubt share ancestral connections to, an enormous, “Thank you!” This made real all the years of research I’ve so easily enjoyed and obsessed with at times.

Before I took the adventure into the depths of rural Ireland in search of places I only knew existed through family research, I had no idea a day wouldn’t go by without churches, cemeteries, cows and glorious green nature featuring along the way. But it was the beautiful people of Ireland, who gave the impression of knowing everyone else in their community and that they’re all connected in some way, who made these 26 days a real treat. I’d be surprised now if Mary Clancy didn’t know the Lambert boys. I’m sure to be back!

16th June, 2023

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Irish National Opera’s clever culturally contextualised Così fan tutte

The more than 200-year-old meltingly musical beauty and comical yet thought-provoking nature of Mozart’s 1789 opera buffa, Così fan tutte, unpacks a great deal across its two acts and 24-hour timeframe.  

In a new production directed by Polly Graham for Irish National Opera and currently playing at Dublin’s charming Gaiety Theatre, The School for Lovers — as it is otherwise known — is treated to a clever early 20th century Irish contextualised concept in which WWI is underway and women are on the verge of winning the right to vote. 

As the story goes, two privileged sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, are duped after a bet is wagered between their adoring fiancés Ferrando and Guglielmo, along with their philosophising friend Don Alfonso who insists a woman’s fidelity is like the Arabian phoenix; everyone swears it exists but no one knows where. Under the pretence of being called away on battle duty, the men return as disguised, moustached Albanians, seduce the other’s partner and, to their shock, win their hearts – clearly not a victory they had hoped for.

As a visitor to Ireland, and no doubt to locals, Graham’s concept begins with great appeal with local history adding fine-fitting impact to the drama at hand. 

On Dublin’s opening night, the musical quality soared with each of the principals having both their time to impress as well as blending gorgeously as an ensemble. They were aided by the energetic contingent of fine young singers of the INO Chorus together with conductor Peter Whelan’s captivating and dynamically driven realisation of Mozart’s unceasingly affecting score.  

The two sisters’ are uniquely characterised by Sharon Carty’s dynamically charged vocal expressivity as Dorabella — pity the servant who gets thrown across the stage in her fit of anger— and Anna Devin’s more pure vocal elegance as Fiordiligi. 

Convincingly portraying both the lovers and their disguised exotic characters from start to finish, Benjamin Russell and Dean Power are a winning comical duo and handsomely voiced as Guglielmo and Ferrando respectively. John Molloy breezes about with a distinguished air and in characterful voice as Don Alfonso and Majella Cullagh is a hoot as the sisters’ influential housemaid Despina and her disguises as a quack and notary.

Witty and insightful as Lorenzo da Ponte’s Italian libretto is, today’s standards expose the work’s glaring sexism and discrimination but Graham goes far in facing them head-on, in a way one could say, that avoids the fate of it succumbing to cancel culture.

Rather than presenting the two sisters as shallow and unworldly, Graham sets them on a trajectory of positive change, from a life of privileged idleness to strong individuals actively joining the time’s social changes free from the domination of men.

Don Alfonso turns out to be an early silent filmmaker. He’s making a silent movie about an ancient Irish legend set at the Hill of Tara the locals will have a far deeper awareness of than me and the two Albanians are his stars.

But Graham’s concept doesn’t come without a few small issues in its execution. The embedded filmmaking story that comes in Act 2, interesting as it is, not only crowds and overwhelms proceedings to the extent it was taken — the chorus have an unusually frequent presence as servants, film extras and demonstrators — but seems to compromise the already inventive adaptation Graham presents. It makes you wonder what purpose the filmmaking serves.

The feature of Jamie Vartan’s set design, creating both an indoor-outdoor sense of space by its tall cubic walled enclosure, is a lumpy green mound spreading across the middle of the stage. And of course, it alludes to the Hill of Tara. Much of the action is performed over it but the sometimes noticeable attention to footwork has the affect of breaking the visual flow. Costumes, also by Vartan, are loosely evocative of the era and Sinéad McKenna’s lighting design adds focus where needed.

Quibbles aside, Irish National Opera’s culturally contextualised Così fan tutte is a thoroughly entertaining experience that will guarantee a buzz and gush of discussion post-performance. Having the fortune of being in Dublin at the right time for a dose of opera-made-relevant, ‘the luck of the Irish' might just be following me on my trip around the Emerald Isle.

Così fan tutte

Irish National Opera 

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Until 27th May 2023

Leisureland, Galway (concert performance)

29th May 2023

Cork Opera House

31st May and 2nd June 2023

Productiona Photo: Ruth Medjber


Monday, December 26, 2022

The 6th Annual OperaChaser Awards 

- 2022 -

Revealed via Twitter @OperaChaser and Facebook on 27th December 2022, 
commencing at 5pm,

Dromana, Victoria.

The 6th OperaChaser Awards, as in previous years, are an opportunity to reflect on the year and are dedicated to all those who have contributed in sharing their artistic and creative pursuits in nourishing their audiences with immeasurable meaning and lasting enjoyment. 

Nothing seems left unaffected in our lives and behaviours after a pandemic-havoc-causing couple of years. My own former life of constant international travel for several decades is now no longer. I can only reflect on the fortune of that, as well as on the incredible smorgasbord of world opera seen in that period. 

Still, I count my blessings for this year’s return to travelling internationally — be it in a much reduced capacity — and seeing two new Ring productions, one in Bayreuth and the other in Berlin. I also saw a production of Die Fledermaus, performed by international students of the Berlin Opera Academy — those who know my opera-going habits will be aware of my great pleasure in seeing young developing artists making their mark at the beginning of potential life-long careers.   

Interstate travel similarly took a dive outside my hometown of Melbourne as well this year. A visit to Adelaide in March for the Adelaide Festival’s Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan, composed by Joseph Twist with libretto by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas, and The Golden Cockerel, directed by Barrie Kosky, was followed by just three trips to Sydney. 

First up in Sydney was Opera Australia’s Otello by Verdi and a new production of La Juive in its national premiere in March. The final two trips were made for each of baroque specialists Pinchgut Opera’s Orontea in May and Médée in December. All were well worth the journey.

Consequently, it was decided to concentrate this year’s OperaChaser Awards on those opera productions and operas in concert seen locally only in Melbourne. The art form hasn’t yet bounced back with the breadth and frequency of pre-pandemic days — and that was a state that could have been much improved upon — but what is truly alive is how our independent and grassroots opera communities are itching to convey their art and put on a show. Thank you to Melbourne Opera, IOpera, Australian Contemporary Opera Company, BK Opera and Lyric Opera Melbourne, and to government funded companies Opera Australia and Victorian Opera. 

The national and state opera companies, however, need to lead the way with greater commitment to our city and regional areas, including making greater inroads to educating and enticing young audiences. 

Also, for the first time, I’m glad to finally recognise and single out the impressive work of a young individual building their career with the OperaChaser Award for Young Developing Artist. 

As always, thank you to all involved in creating the ephemeral beauty of opera in performance. Again, there is neither a flash ceremony nor a trophy to go with it but I sincerely hope that these awards bring a little pleasure to the deserved artists who bring excellence to the art of opera and all who continue to dig deep into their artistic, dramatic and creative energies. 

I am pleased to announce the winners of the 6th OperaChaser Awards, 2022.

OperaChaser Award for Outstanding Production, Melbourne:
Lohengrin, Opera Australia 
Photo:Jeff Busby

OperaChaser Awards, Melbourne

From almost 20 productions, including concerts

Outstanding Production
Lohengrin Opera Australia
Director: Olivier Py

Outstanding Opera in Concert
Siegfreid, Melbourne Opera
Conductor: Anthony Negus

Outstanding Director
Suzanne Chaundy
Die Walküre, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Conductor 
Tahu Matheson
Lohengrin, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Leading Role 
Jonas Kaufmann
Title role, Lohengrin Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Leading Role
Stacey Alleaume
Violetta, La Traviata, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Simon Meadows
Friedrich of Telramund, Lohengrin, Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Akansha Hungenahally
Young Fan, Belle and Martha Cratchit, A Christmas Carol, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Chorus
Victorian Opera Emerging Artists and Children's Chorus
Il Mago di Oz, Victorian Opera

Young Developing Artist
Olivia Fedorow-Yemm
Oberon, A Midsummer Night's Dream, VCA, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music

Outstanding Set Design
Andrew Bailey
Die Walküre, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Costume Design
Bryanna Lowen
Iphis, Lyric Opera Melbourne

Outstanding Lighting Design
Rob Sowinski
Die Walküre, Melbourne Opera

Sunday, March 13, 2022

A formidably sung grand opera accompanies Opera Australia's judicious decision to stage Halévy’s La Juive

“Jew or Christian, we’ll share one fate.” So announce two lovers in a courageous act that resides in the hostile climate of religious discrimination when excommunication and worse, death, can befall them. Romantic dreams, however, fail to materialise in this  barbed-wired world of intolerance, discrimination and vengeance. 

La Juive, Opera Australia Chorus
Composed in the tradition of French grand opera, where well-tailored historical backdrops framed stories of human passions accompanied by ostentatious stage and musical spectacle, French-Jewish composer Fromental Halévy’s La Juive of 1835 is a mighty operatic experience to soak in and ponder on today’s terms. 

Those hungry for the vocal and musical riches opera can bestow will be generously nourished by Opera Australia’s new production of this grand opera rarity, a co-production with Opéra National de Lyon. Formidably sung and conducted with immense kaleidoscopic drama and intensity by Italian conductor Carlo Montanaro, it is rightfully so a proud moment for the company after the unfortunate 2020 premiere postponement due to the Covid pandemic.

The story concerns the forbidden love between young Jewish woman Rachel (Natalie Aroyan) and the wealthy Christian Prince Léopold (Francisco Brito). When discovered, it all unravels with enormous tragic results. At first, Rachel believes Léopold is a Jew, a painter called Samuel, and unaware of his disguise and marriage to Princess Eudoxie (Esther Song). Rachel is also unaware that she is the daughter of Cardinal de Brogni, (David Parkin), saved from a fire when she was a baby by the Jewish father that raised her, Éléazar, (Diego Torre).

Originally set in Constance in the early 15th century (near the present day German-Swiss border), the 5-act libretto by respected author Eugène Scribe is one of more than 3 dozen libretti he penned for many established composers of the day. French director Olivier Py resets the action in 1930s France, a period that coincided with increased antisemitism in France and the disappearance of the opera’s long-held popularity. 

Diego Torre as Éléazar, Natalie Aroyan as Rachel and 
Francisco Brito as Prince Léopold 
Py is confronted with a complex, sometimes incredulously knitted narrative of coincidence to resolve, including having four of the principal characters ready to give up their life for one reason (or person) or another. The results are mixed. Despite the outpouring of wrought emotion and action in many scenes, a surprising amount of static stand-and-deliver stage compositions reduce the dramatic patina. And Py certainly isn’t assisted in the process by set and costume designer Pierre-André Weitz’s rather alienating stage-width staircase of 10 steps which challenge both intimate character and massed chorus moments. On the other hand, the company’s concurrent production of Otello, incorporating a far greater mass of stage-filling stairs is handled with enormous dramatic aplomb. 

Costumes clearly delineate each religious camp - Jews in suited charcoal but the pristine, muted palette uniformity of the Catholic majority, who revelled in their public demonstrations of “Le morte de les etrangers”, rarely feels right. 

More success comes with the oft slow-moving background scenic elements of rudimentary timber frames, high walls of bookcases and a grove of charred  barbed wire-like trees broodingly lit by lighting designer Bertrand Killy and evoking the darkness of the Holocaust’s dawn. A shocking rain of worn shoes crashing down when hope appears lost strikingly cements the association. 

The passover celebration of Act 2 in Éléazar’s home provides the most dramatically fluid scene in which the depth of the stage is utilised while bringing a portion of the action to the stepped foreground, including the placement of two photographic portraits in front of a candelabra of Éléazar’s two sons murdered well before the action of the story begins by Brogni when a Count.

A few staging issues aside, nothing more could be desired from the splendid cast and Opera Australia Orchestra‘s flawlessly played, stirring and balanced soundscape under Montanaro’s helm.

Diego Torre as Éléazar and men of the Opera Australia Chorus

Comfortably excelling at the height of their artistry, regular company principals Diego Torre and Natalie Aroyan portray the intricate father and daughter relationship of Éléazar and Rachel with impressively nuanced characterisation.

Torre‘s vocal chiaroscuro and sculpted Italianate tenor flexes magnificently around Éléazar’s determination, defiance and vengeance. Torre is a commanding force in Act 2 and, for the opera's best known aria, Act 3’s "Rachel! Quand du seigneur", he bursts with inner pent up emotion to reveal the agonised man Éléazar is with deep vocal pathos, not wanting to sacrifice Rachel to his hatred of Christians and renouncing his revenge (though short-lived). 

Aroyan is vocally breathtaking and expressive as she reveals Rachel’s unfolding nightmare and underlying sincerity and grace, balancing the demanding register shifts with seamless beauty while soaring with plushness up to a gleaming top.

As her questionable lover Samuel (Prince Léopold), Argentinian Francisco Brito exhibits both the earlier courage and later cowardice - or simply plain stupidity - of his character’s actions with a handsome and coruscating tenor. Most palpable is the chemistry Brito shares with Aroyan and the uneasiness of his disguise alongside Torre.

The discrimination and authority of the Church is realised in a sensational performance by David Parkin as Cardinal Brogni. Dispensing dark forbidding tones with quaking and richly resonant bass majesty, Parkin effortlessly embodies Brogni’s cold imperiousness and subsequent pleading heart to know from Éléazar what has become of his daughter.

As the haughty Princess Eudoxie, Esther Song is resplendent, her crystalline soprano and assured ornamentation a wonderful mirroring counterpart to Aroyan’s Rachel.

Andrew Moran gives powerful agency and presence to the smaller role of the brutish Ruggiero. Richard Anderson is similarly effective as Albert and the Opera Australia Chorus, a significant presence throughout and surging in world-class form, create stunning textures and undulating momentum. 

It is not as if religious discrimination and persecution has been shelved only in the past. Halévy’s grandiloquent work contains substance still today that serves to remind us of these injustices. Thanks to Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini’s desire to see this work to the stage, his audience will be unequivocally rewarded. 

La Juive 

Opera Australia 

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 

Until 26th March 2022

Production Photos: Prudence Upton