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

Saturday, June 5, 2021

An electric, colourful and imaginative way of seeing a rarity in Cavalli's The Loves of Apollo & Dafne at Pinchgut Opera

Published online at Australian Arts Review, 22nd May 2021

One of the great beauties of opera is its ability to instantaneously manipulate our emotions by what it conveys in music and text. On Thursday evening, that quality abounded in Pinchgut Opera’s first fully staged production since 2019, Francesco Cavalli’s Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne – or as its English translation advertises it, The Loves of Apollo & Dafne. A pupil of Claudio Monteverdi, Cavalli reigned throughout the 17th century as one of opera’s greatest exponents, composing over 30 works which almost all premiered at one of the newly established public theatres in Venice, the Teatro Cassiano. Despite Cavalli’s recognition today, it is still rare to see his works on the stage.

Max Riebl and Alexandra Oomens

Pinchgut Opera are changing that. In this, its 20th anniversary year, the company is featuring its third Cavalli work. Beginning with Ormindo in 2009, then Giasone in 2013, The Loves of Apollo & Dafne is the composer’s second opera, written to a fabulously timeless libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello.

Artistic Director Erin Helyard has unearthed a watertight gem and reveals Cavalli’s undulating, melodically mood-changing music and informative vocal lines superbly, under his embracing command of the small but exceptional nine-member Orchestra of the Antipodes.

Without director Mitchell Butel’s adorably eccentric vision, however, its theatrical potential may never have been known. It is as if Butel has turned Cavalli’s opera upside down and blown it to pieces, giving it imaginative new life and something to say almost 400 years later.

The colours are electric and so are the voices in Butel’s riotous and witty romp in the park which highlights and toys with Busenello’s libretto. With over 20 roles cast for 6 principal singers in multiple guises and a chorus of four, an ancient Greek myth is revitalised and resonates splendidly.

For its enlightening schooling on love, Jeremy Allen’s set, Melanie Liertz’s costumes and Damien Cooper’s lighting all combine to seemingly take the audience back to childhood, to a land of cardboard cut-out vibrancy teeming with larger than life characters in a pantomime of sorts.

The god Apollo (Max Riebl as a yoga instructor and a bit of a twat), is in fruitless pursuit of Dafne (Alexandra Oomens as a pert, headstrong gardener) in Homer’s Thessaly, here a small park in which, amongst so many other comings and goings, a chorus of four sunflower-faced muses sing radiantly in Dafne’s support. At this point you wouldn’t be surprised if Bill and Ben the flower pot men showed up. But Dafne vows to stay single and won’t have a bar of Apollo. With the help of her father, Peneo the river god (Andrew O’Connor as a plumber), her life is given a tree-change, as opposed to actually being turned into a laurel tree.

Cupid (Stacey Alleaume as a skateboarding punk) takes revenge on Apollo. Aurora (Oomens again, as a curvaceous minx) is having an affair with Cefalo (Riebl again, now as a shiny-suited slime bucket) but Cefalo’s wife Procris (Alleaume again, as a pram-pushing mum) witnesses the affair. There’s the god of sleep, Sonno (David Hidden as a kaftan clad guru), who promises fabulous dreams from the start, Filena (Jacqueline Dark as a leisure-suited dog-walker), who advises Dafne to hook up with Apollo while she’s young, but is more than willing to bonk him if he had any interest in her, as well as numerous other characters in the park.

Sounding confusing? And bonkers? In fact, Butel makes it awesomely clear, often hilarious and vitally poignant, just as Cavalli’s music instructs it. Riebl, Oomens and Alleaume carry the bulk of the singing, juggling their multiple roles with absolute conviction and outstanding animated flexibility.

Riebl’s striking countertenor is in winning gymnastic form. Oomens’ crystalline soprano radiates with penetrating appeal as she floats her notes nimbly across her music and making her twin roles so uniquely different, it is hard to believe it is the same person. The contrast set up between Oomens‘ Aurora being enamoured by Cefalo and Dafne being repulsed by Apollo seems a wonderful marker of what we chose and what could be.

Alleaume’s luxurious soprano is a treasure to hear, taking out Act 1’s finale before interval with a formidable and crushingly tragic lament when Procris continues to declare her love for Cefalo despite being cheated on.

Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark defines each of her four characters with strong acting and sings a spectrum of exciting colours, Hidden shares his charismatic bass generously and bass-baritone Andrew O’Connor, among his three roles, sings a stunner of an aria in the final Act as Peneo gives up his daughter Dafne to nature.

The ensemble is also enhanced greatly by the talents of young artists Claudia Mackay. Olivia Payne, Elias Wilson and Andrew Taylor Knight as the sunflower muses, yoga class participants and more. At the end of the day, The Loves of Apollo & Dafne might very well be saying love is a confusing affair us mortals are at the mercy of.

If not that, there will be plenty opportunity to decide for yourself since it is being recorded for broadcast on ABC Classic and filmed by Australian Theatre Live for cinematic and digital release. If you can’t attend a performance, I highly recommend tuning into its many wonderful ingredients.

The Loves of Apollo & Dafne

Pinchgut Opera

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

Until 26th May 2021

Production Photos: Brett Boardman

Friday, June 4, 2021

A powerhouse team deliver excellence in the brooding darkness of director Bruce Beresford's vision of Verdi's Macbeth at Melbourne Opera

Published online at Australian Arts Review, 19th May 2021

A third Verdi opera and a fifth production on a Melbourne stage for the month of May playing to shoulder to shoulder audiences is very much making the city feel like the centre of global opera right now. On Tuesday evening, it was Melbourne Opera turning up the heat and, once again, mounting great heights with the bristling multilayered drama of Verdi’s four-act version of Shakespeare’s early 17th century play, Macbeth.

Helena Dix as Lady Macbeth with Melbourne Opera Chorus
Stage and film director Bruce Beresford creates a uniformly engaging blend of mise-en-scènes in his exploration of the relationship between greed for power and conscience on one hand and fate and free will on the other.

At his service is a powerhouse team giving their all to a banquet of dramatic singing and rich character portrayal which charges the plot with riveting fine results. In all, it forms a showpiece for some exceptional home-grown talent.

Verdi’s Macbeth, premiering in 1847 and composed in the fruitful years that launched his universal acclaim, abounds with a climate of unrest and superstition in which the quest for absolute power is so great, no less than a royal murder can satisfy its need.

Throughout, Beresford keeps direction of movement simple but highly effective, giving clear focus to the actions of individuals and enabling a huge chorus of more than 60 to present with vivid intent.

A general brooding darkness with hints of silvery light in Rob Sowinski’s expert lighting design reveals both designer Gregory Carroll’s rugged, blackened and lofty cavernous setting as well as his period costumes of muted tones and rich textural variety.

Simon Meadows as Macbeth, Helena Dix as Lady Macbeth 
and the Melbourne Opera Chorus
A thoughtful sense of visual economy is employed which sufficiently impresses and a few symbolic projections serving their purpose well by Cordelia Beresford include a bloodied dagger, the washing of hands and a crown.

As a challenging peak and famous vehicle for soprano and baritone leads, the Macbeths are rendered with considerable might and acuity by Simon Meadows and Helena Dix. When they first make their appearances, they exude an air of youthfulness, Meadows’ Macbeth tellingly ill at ease with himself but which is sung with measured weight and Dix, in long plaits, almost coyly girlish in her demeanour.

Dix’s sweetly spoken reading of Macbeth’s letter is a beginning that belies the brilliant, dizzying trajectory to come. Meadows traverses Macbeth’s emotional spectrum with great conviction. How the couple manipulate dynamics via voice and behaviour through their personal destined course and blend together is compelling theatre.

Macbeth receives the crown from his wife which she takes from atop the blood-stained sheet covering the dead king in a morbidly climactic spectacle of well-honed drama. Thereafter, Meadows’ performance escalates with a vocally impassioned sturdiness as Macbeth’s mind uncoils up until the plangent, introspective mood of Act 4’s final big aria after having learnt that the English-backed Scottish insurgents are advancing, Pietà, rispetto, amore.

Simon Meadows as Macbeth and 
Helena Dix as Lady Macbeth

It is wonderful to have Helena Dix back in our midst and, like Meadows, giving a knockout role debut. Dix invokes a brutally impressive brew of imperiousness, cunning and glazed madness. One showstopper after another, Dix whips up notes of cyclonic strength and emotive intensity with a feast of incisively sculpted coloratura and embellishments.

From Act 1’s determined Or tutti, sorgete / Arise now, all you ministers of hell to Act 2’s frolicking but soul-shrouded brindisi through to a transfixing Sleepwalking Scene and drunk with murderous thoughts in between, Dix revels in the moment and so too does her audience.

Adrian Tamburini’s valiant Banquo is a magnetic force, his resonant molten bass baritone effortlessly spanning the music and completing his short-lived  time on stage with a splendid Come dal ciel precipita / O, how the darkness falls from heaven in a heartfelt embrace of a father and his son who, looking up to him, never takes his eyes off his father.

The wait seems too long to hear Samuel Sakker strut his glowing, muscular tenor for Macduff’s big aria, bringing enormous sensitivity and stature to Act 4’s Ah, la paterna mano / Ah, the paternal hand.

Among smaller roles, there is excellence aplenty in up and coming tenor Robert Macfarlane’s brave Malcolm and, though fleeting, listen out for soprano Eleanor Greenwood cut through an entire musical tsunami as Lady Macbeth’s lady in waiting.

The chorus of witches concoct some fabulous singing, the men of the chorus somewhat less so but they come together for every throng in perfectly combined strength.

On opening night, the heat in the strings took a little time reaching the mark but, alongside them, relaxed woodwind and confident brass and percussion responded well to conductor Greg Hocking’s structured dramatic vision. The threatening and thunderous orchestral passages shot through Her Majesty’s Theatre with astounding beauty.

Finally, a special mention goes to fight coordinator Charlie Mycroft. Act 4’s battlefield scene is superbly enacted with really thrilling sword fighting, which got me thinking. Melbourne Opera, it is true, are sharpening every tool in their armoury as they continue to go from strength to strength.


Melbourne Opera

Her Majesty’s Theatre

Until 26th May 2021

Productions Photos:  Robin Halls

A strong and versatile cast launch Bizet's Carmen on Opera Australia's national tour with a revving good production - Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight Magazine, 17th May 2021

After the cancellation of Opera Australia’s national touring schedule in COVID-crippling 2020, the company’s latest production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen opened at Dandenong’s Drum Theatre on Friday evening to begin its journey across all states and territories until the end of August – circumstances permitting. It’s a handsome looking production that more than satisfies the demands of a travelling outfit on its way to in excess of 30 cities. And director and choreographer Matthew Barclay’s evocative mid-20th century transposition is a revving good fit, energetically choreographed and complimented by a strong, versatile cast.

Local Community Children and Opera Australia Ensemble 
in Bizet's Carmen 

Bizet never lived to see the international success Carmen was to become. The opera’s 1875 premiere season met with a lukewarm reception for a titular character anything but. One of the most iconic women of opera, Carmen is a controversial and confronting handful. She is a Gypsy outcast, unglamorous and unruly but gets what she wants through her power of seduction. Love is free to share with any man of her choosing and freedom is her calling, none of which come without risk.

Bizet’s Carmen, based on French writer Prosper Mérimée’s 1840 fictional novella of the same name, is set in Seville and southern Spain during the early 19th century. Carmen is drawn to the young military officer Don José who gives everything up for her but whose jealousy spirals him towards revenge after Carmen hooks up with the dashing bullfighter Escamillo.

Barclay’s thoughtfully conceived vision sets the work in a time when the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and a World War would still be fresh for a new generation of young freedom-hungry adults finding their foothold. The characters created feel not too distant from our own times and Barclay gives opportunities for every one of them to resonate.

Anna Cordingley’s set design features what alludes to a giant roadside billboard and attached bleachers which are cleverly adapted for Act 1’s town square with Seville’s historic skyline as a backdrop, Act 3’s remoteness – where one motorcycle prop is enhanced by sound and light effects that open the imagination to a picture far wider than the limits of the stage – and Act 4’s finale at the bullring. For the rendezvous in Act 2, Lillas Pastia’s is an atmospheric neon backlit 1950s rudimentary cafe where the best of Barclay’s choreography swirls and ignites just about every surface. Paul Jackson’s lighting design is faultless, often wondrous.

Angela Hogan as Carmen

But among the well-executed realism, Carmen herself presents with a small issue. Portrayed more like a viper than seductress, whose lewd displays of sexual attraction and interplay could fog the spectacles, Carmen appears to perform more for the people around her than reveal something of her inner self. When she reaches her fateful death, her tragedy fails to attain the agency it could, not helped by the only costume disaster, a garish white body hugging and red-frilled flamenco dress.

In the limelight to open the tour as one of three alternating leading ladies, Angela Hogan creates an unforgettable stage presence as she flaunts a rich and agile mezzo-soprano along with a talent for dance and a good show of leg. Hogan opens with a lustrous Habanera in Act 1. She is a little unsteady vocally while impressing on the castanets during Act 2’s Je vais danser en votre honneur … La la la, in her sexually-charged dance for Don José, but captures Carmen’s grief and rage best with fire and depth in the vocals, at her most convincing in Act 3 (itself a production highlight in its entirety) as the principal characters converge in an arid and desolate environment overflowing with tension.

As Don José, Iain Henderson gives an excellent performance, effortlessly conveying the unravelling mental state of a man caught in a quagmire of irrationality. Possessing a warm and vibrant tenor, Henderson consistently colours his music with appropriate intensity and passion, falling under Carmen’s spell and singing an especially heartfelt treat for Act 2’s Flower Song as Don José tells her how he stayed strong in prison because of the flower she had given to him.

Iain Henderson as Don José and 
Danita Weatherstone as Micaëla

Lithe baritone Haotian Qi postures proudly and gallantly as Escamillo while singing with great suavity and assurance. Right from his celebratory Act 2 entrance for the famous Toreador Song, Qi gives the music the bravado it deserves but, in an entertaining touch, loses to a little girl in a soccer table game in the middle of it. And Micaëla, who longs for Don José, is nothing of a meek shadow as soprano Danita Weatherstone illuminates her with determination and bravery while singing with melting warmth and purity.

Accompanying roles are solidly realised among a cohesive ensemble, some of whom will slip into different roles on the tour, including seasoned mezzo-sopranos Dimity Shepherd and Agnes Sarkis as Carmen, Matthew Reardon as Don José and Alexander Sefton as Escamillo. And a chorus of delightful younger voices drawn from the local community certainly had much to do with the great enthusiasm received from their supporters. On this occasion, 15 girls sang and gestured in well-rehearsed form.

An expert playing chamber orchestra kept the momentum flowing on opening night under conductor Luke Spicer’s brisk and decisive leadership despite incidences of dramatic heat loss. The overture and willowy woodwind solos of Act 3’s prelude were notably embracing.

From Dandenong to Dubbo, Cairns to Canberra and many more places around the country, here is a great chance to see Carmen close up and be swept up in its simmering Spanish tragedy.


Opera Australia Touring Production

Drum Theatre, Dandenong 

Until August, Various Cities

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Thursday, June 3, 2021

A thoroughly vibrant and entertaining encounter with Verdi's lesser performed Ernani from Opera Australia - Australian Arts Review

Published online at Australian Arts Review, 15th May 2021

Giuseppe Verdi enjoyed widespread success with his early period Ernani, a four-act dramma lirico based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani, after it premiered in 1844 in Venice. Verdi’s reputation as a great composer of opera had already been cemented with Nabucco (1842) and I Lombardi (1843) and, like them, Ernani is a melodious canvas of intoxicating arias, ensembles and rousing chorus work.

Cast of Opera Australia's Ernani

These days it doesn’t hit the stage often but a new co-production between Opera Australia and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala from director Sven-Eric Bechtolf makes a thoroughly vibrant and entertaining job of it.

Put simply, Ernani is the story of three earnest men who duel in sword and song for the heart of a fair maiden. The titular character Ernani (an Aragonese nobleman disguised as a bandit) is in love with Elvira, who longs for him too, but she is about to be married to the old, wealthy and influential nobleman, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. If that’s not enough dramatic fodder, the King of Spain, Don Carlo, is in pursuit of Elvira as well but things don’t turn out well for any of them.

Set in early 16th century Spain against a background of political unrest when honour trumps love, Ernani is a mirror against pent up emotions that need to be resolved at any cost in an age of now outmoded chivalry and moral norms.

At every turn, Ernani’s life is on a knife edge as he invites death upon himself while defending his honour in a seemingly ridiculous competition to outdo any other male. No stranger to weaponry either, Elvira is prepared to go to the same extreme. Bechtolf offers an ingenious solution that gives a little satirical jab at the entire affair and highlights the melodrama a contemporary eye would see in it.

Diego Torre as Ernani, Natalia Aroyan as Elvira
and Alexander Vinogradov as de Silva

Bechtolf does this by creating a play within a play and, in so doing, removes the audience from any direct intent of realism while reminding them that this is not to be taken overly seriously. So, when the curtain goes up, Bechtolf takes the audience back to the stage of a 19th century grand theatre as Ernani is about to be performed.

All the intricate details of a working stage are impressively presented as the magic of theatre is created in Julian Crouch’s evocative scenic designs, Kevin Pollard’s fabulously ornate costumes and Marco Filibeck’s beautifully enhancing lighting design. As a 21st century thinker, we are given the license to look back at the theatrical magic of the past as they might have engineered and act it out – and have a bit of a chuckle along the way.

The opera’s sumptuous staging of its 16th century setting is accompanied by exaggerated operatic acting as befits our impressions of the era and humorous episodes as stage hands carry out their duties. No one escapes attention, especially de Silva who bursts in during the thrilling singing of Act 1’s trio of Elvira, Ernani and Don Carlo in a flamboyantly draped costume and later, when drawing his sword, produces a lengthy weapon that could intimidate any rival. He may be old but de Silva is up for anything.

And so is Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov who leads an excellent and well-matched cast with tenor Diego Torre in the title role, soprano Natalia Aroyan as Elvira and baritone Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo. Nothing seems to phase Vinogradov’s fabulously mountainous-voiced de Silva. Master of a lavish palace, de Silva is brought to intriguing life with Vinogradov’s outstanding performance.

Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo and Natalie Aroyan as Elvira

Aroyan’s Elvira is determined and courageous but not enough to overcome her helpless place among men and the distress she feels in her predicament. In Elvira’s signature Act 1 cavatina, Ernani, Ernani involami / Ernani, Ernani, save me, where she reaffirms her deep emotions for Ernani, Aroyan captures it in lush and confident form.

A little more subtlety and shading could have been employed on opening night but Aroyan is a delight to listen to, seduces with her dark lower register and goes on to simply thrive amongst the big ensemble and choruses with powerful top notes.

In a performance full of zest and stamina, Torre is a fiercely heroic Ernani, one whose passions are piping hot and who pairs with Aroyan’s Elvira in a wonderful combination of emotions, commitment and thrillingly harmonised vocals. Torre shoots high and achieves greatly in his performance, all the way to a melodramatic death in front of his bride he so longed for.

Stoyanov is commanding as Don Carlo, verging on lechery in his declaration of desire for Elvira as well as exposing a hint of humanity in his notably strong rendition of Act 3’s Oh, de’ verd’anni miei / Oh, the dreams and deceits of my youth, in which Carlo resolves to change his life if he is crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In Don Carlo, there is a complexity of character that Stoyanov richly draws out with his deeply burnished baritone.

Getting underway with a galloping great swathe of singing from the chorus of brigands, the men of the Opera Australia Chorus are in superb voice. The woman are just as fine as an elegant chorus of hand maids and noblewomen.

Orchestra Victoria also showcases their many talents under conductor Carlo Montanaro who clearly understood and translated the synergy between music and stage direction and the score’s ability to flex for maximum benefit.

The overall effect is total exhilaration which might take you by surprise and get you wanting to come back for more. With the bar having been raised, what is Ernani for, if not for this?


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Until 22nd May 2021

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

A sometimes seductive but, at times, distracting concoction of LED imagery accompany Opera Australia's latest Aida - Australian Arts Review

Published online at Australian Arts Review, 8th May 2021

It is almost 3 years since Opera Australia introduced design-altering LED digital screen technology to audiences when Italian director and choreographer Davide Livermore’s Aida opened in Sydney. Since then, the company has produced numerous such works but none had made it south to Melbourne.

On Thursday night, that changed when the dazzling liquidity of Livermore’s production opened the company’s autumn season at the State Theatre. And how exciting for all sorts of reasons to have the company back after an almost 18-month absence and to welcome live performance again at the State Theatre after more than one year.

The cast of Opera Australia's Aida

Rarely would Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida be conceived without laying on lavishness and spectacle. Both came together here as the story’s ancient Egyptian setting received a bold 21st century makeover using loads of imagery as 10 giant screens slid and pivoted into place around stage action comprising more than 100 stage performers.

Lofty engraved gold panels and hieroglyphics, coiling cobras and walls of flames, a giant black panther and a shimmering moonlit Nile, slow moving images of near naked pharaoh-like men and sensuous priestesses – the list goes on.

There are some really evocative scenes as part of Livermore’s collaborations with Giò Forma’s set design and D-Wok’s video design but most of the time you might find yourself wracking your brain to find meaning throughout the overall restlessness.

The unfortunate freezing of the surtitles for a good part of Act 1 at “Whatever have you done? Oh, you poor man!” in a way said what was going through my mind.

And then, it was as if costume designer Gianluca Falaschi had chanelled the strong and glamorous Art Deco lines and glittering threads of the great 20th-century artist and designer Erté to achieve his Egyptian wardrobe. In contrast, the Ethiopians were attired in military uniform and bland greys of the peasantry of the World War One years.

Stefano La Colla as Radamès and Leah Crocetto as Aida

So, was Livermore attempting to reset Aida during this time of conflict? More a nod perhaps, since a sense of the fantastical overrides it all – like the Medieval-looking armour-clad King of Egypt who constantly reminded me of the ghost of the Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

The freakish dancing by possessed young women slashing at their own or each other’s wrists and necks didn’t reveal much either. Whatever the cult, the newly elected Captain of the Guard Radamès was certainly part of the drill, slashing at his own wrists with his sword to presumably swear allegiance to king and country.

But at the core of the opera is a fraught love triangle that ought to outperform any superfluousness or extravagance. Its dynamic forces, however, struggled to achieve a binding heartbeat of total conviction. In the title role as the enslaved Ethiopian princess and handmaiden to the King’s daughter Amneris, American soprano Leah Crocetto developed splendidly as the night progressed.

In the opening scene in the hall of the King’s palace, the chemistry in Crocetto’s acting lacked a little bite but by the scene’s big closing aria, Ritorna vincitor, which she sang with resplendent colour and texture, Crocetto was on her way harnessing everything in Aida’s heart and predicament of having fallen in love with Radamès.

Crocetto effortlessly sang through a plush range of beautifully heartfelt notes, reaching melting heights in Act 3’s opening aria, Qui Radamès verra… O patria mia as Aida waits for Radamès on the eve of his marriage to Amneris. When Crocetto took a rousing curtain call, emotions were clearly evident and it was a joy to welcome her in an Opera Australia debut after having seen her in numerous international performances, including singing a memorably impressive Aida at Seattle Opera in 2018.

Elena Gabouri as Amneris, Michael Honeyman as
the King of Ethiopia and 
Alexander Vinogradov as Ramfis

Making his Opera Australia debut also was Italian tenor Stefano La Colla as Radamès. Warmth and muscularity in the voice gave La Colla’s Radamès a good degree of presence but the top notes tended to lose patina. For a good part, La Colla seemed to anticipate rather than be at one with the music as well as appearing physically disengaged from the moment, especially when sharing the little time Radamès and Aida have together in intimacy.In the final tomb scene, however, La Colla gave a moving performance along with Crocetto despite a directorial flop as Radamès lay in the foreground with Aida standing behind, physically distanced and with zero eye contact.

As Amneris, voluptuously voiced French-Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Gabouri was something phenomenal, oozing with power and magnetism but equally able to portray the Egyptian princess’ heartbreaking vulnerability. A giant black panther often loomed slyly behind her but Gabouri sang as if needing nothing to accompany an instrument she possesses that was thrilling at every turn, right until the finale when one couldn’t but feel compassion as she stands upon an inverted pyramid that pierces the tomb of the lovers below.

The smaller roles shone with excellent performances, especially that of firm and molten Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov whose high priest Ramfis imparted dignity and leadership. Michael Honeyman was strong in voice and convincing in acting as Aida’s father, the King of Ethiopia, and Gennadi Dubinsky resonated wonderfully from his platform in his armour as the King of Egypt.

Much of the ensemble singing added impact and the glorious Verdi chorus work was nicely calibrated and sumptuously tuneful. Symmetry and order were the general rule in the way the chorus were mobilised and, once again, you could shake your head at some of the choreography.

Down in the pit, conductor Tahu Matheson kept the lid on showiness, opting for a more refined approach in the voluminous passages and giving delicacy equal impact.

Orchestra Victoria was in superb form, as were the six trumpeters stationed from high on the sides of the theatre for Livermore’s more low-key Triumphal March – no live animals but artistically introduced with imagery of a horseman riding through what alludes to the strategic Gorge of Napata made mention of subsequently.

The company’s new Aida is a curious, sometimes seductive, at times distracting concoction of LED imagery, costuming and direction and much more could have been achieved with the story’s love triangle. The audience took it without raucous applause and wasn’t on their feet either.


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Until 21st May 2021

Production Photos: Jeff Busby