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

A spare but lively ignited Così fan tutte from Melbourne's IOpera - Australian Arts Review

Published online at Australian Arts Review, 3rd May 2021

While a pandemic has crippled opera performance in front of a live audience across the world, Melbourne hosted another treat on the weekend with IOpera’s close up encounter of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

Naomi Flatman as Dorabella and Louise Keast as Fiordiligi

In a spare but lively ignited showing, the work’s exploration of fidelity became effortlessly revealed, its more than 200 year old profound musical beauty and comical yet thought-provoking nature simultaneously brought together with aplomb.

The plot? Two privileged but unworldly sisters are duped after a bet is wagered between their adoring soldier-mate fiancés and 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.

Under novice director Jane Magão’s commendable hand, the loss of innocence shined through, along with a few bruised hearts and a helping of forgiveness. Così lends itself to all kinds of interpretations, but despite Magão playing safe with characters garbed in eye-pleasing period placed costumes, the overall results achieved by their smooth interplay and fullness of characterisation spoke with much contemporary relevance. Balancing the poignancy of the work without over-egging the comic aspects paid off.

A strong, well rehearsed cast sang with meaning and emotion to conductor David Kram’s unhurriedly paced music-making. In allowing moments to delightfully linger and energising the score without overwhelming the singers, Kram did nice work of Jonathan Lynees’ reduced orchestration. With an orchestra of ten on stage placed behind the action, however, the synchronisation between orchestra and the singers often slumped but the pieces were picked up without too much interference.

Darcy Carroll as Guglielmo as Naomi Flatman as Dorabella

One after another, Mozart’s priceless pearls of music and Lorenzo da Ponte’s witty and insightful libretto imparted their sublimity and introspection. And as it demands to be, the ensemble singing was particularly tidy and harmonious.

Soprano Louise Keast and mezzo-soprano Naomi Flatman were both radiant as sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, their opening duet, Ah guarda sorella, a gorgeously perfected introduction as they each praise their man.

As the more protective and cautious sibling, Keast’s succulent, foundation-firm soprano stood up to the task of delivering Fordiligi’s two big arias superbly, Act 2’s Per pietà, ben mio, perdona an especially captivating display as Fiordiligi attempts to banish desire for another man. Flatman’s demure but inquisitive Dorabella endeared to no end, her pliant mezzo and attractive tonal shading adding immense depth to her character.

A palpable camaraderie existed between baritone Darcy Carroll’s Guglielmo and Zachary McCulloch’s Ferrando, Darcy imposing in voice and presence and McCulloch singing with Italianate warmth. Darcy’s physical comedy flair and astute vocal expressivity were invaluable and McCulloch, while reaching his limits, certainly nailed Act 2’s deceptively challenging Un’aura amorosa with tear-inducing sensitivity.

Peter Tregear sang a distinguished Don Alfonso and, in a clever touch, presented as a man having been spurned by love and given up on it. Completing the lineup, the director herself cheekily ran the household as the servant Despina. Magão acted the part with effervescent charm, sweetness of voice and was a hoot in her disguises of quack and notary.

Così might often look somewhat misogynistic and out of touch with modern moral culture but even contemporary minds can’t escape the prickly and powerful conundrum it raises regarding love and desire, of fidelity and trust. For that, it is easy to see and feel it’s enduring allure.

Così fan tutte


Lithuanian Club Theatre, Errol Street, North Melbourne

Until 2nd May 2021

Production Photos: Vivian Wheatley

Canberra's new national Opera makes an impressive debut with a handsome production of La Clemenza di Tito - Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight Magazine, 12th April 2021

Canberra, popularly known to mean “meeting place” in Ngunnawal (one of the Indigenous languages in the district when European settlers arrived), has a new opera company and opera lovers, as well as those curious about it, have a new destination to meet. In the midst of a pandemic, that’s a remarkable achievement, as was Saturday’s opening night of National Opera’s inaugural production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. With it, the overall quality heralds a confident rebirth for opera in the city, in no small measure thanks to Artistic Director and director of the production, Peter Coleman-Wright, who has assembled a fine team of artists.

Supposedly completed in just 18 days, La Clemenza di Tito was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II of Prague. Naturally, exemplifying regal duty and imperial character in a glowing light was imperative. So, obliging with the story of a benevolent Roman ruler (Tito) who exonerates his best friend (Sesto) from an assassination attempt on his life, including the woman (Vitellia) who put him up to it, certainly highlights leadership, compassion and backbone. Tito’s short rule (79-81 AD) was viewed favourably by historians of the period with one such account by Suetonius noting Tito’s remark, should he have not helped anyone in a single day, “Friends, I have lost a day”. Leopold must have been honoured with the comparison, especially with such radiant music bestowed on him.

That musical gold shone from the stage of ANU’s Llewellyn Hall under conductor Dane Lam’s impressive orchestral interpretation. The pressure was on from the start to win the audience over after an unsettling 20-minute delay but all was forgotten when Lam served up a deliciously refined overture, then continued painting Mozart’s score with athleticism, insightfulness and emotional weight. With fortepiano before him, Lam also shifted to conducting from the keyboard while integrating the many recitatives with perceptiveness. At all times, the singing was supported with sensitivity. The Canberra Symphony Orchestra also responded commendably across the night with verve and diligence.

But why La Clemenza di Tito? Coleman-Wright’s production relates the story with clarity in a pared back context that flirts with Ancient Rome yet, neither being contemporary nor futuristic, creates its own artistic sense of time. Stage designer Mel Davies’ spatial layout of clean-cut marble steps and terraces amongst artificial grass and green hedges provides a thoughtful layout for the frequent entries and exits, with Victoria “Fi” Hopkins’ eccentric and eclectically tailored costumes adding flair. But Ancient Rome is in a bit of a mess. Titus’ throne is at risk of falling because Vitellia, daughter of the late emperor (deposed by Titus’ father), wants revenge. In the chambers of government on Capital Hill, is Canberra faring any better? Something about Mozart’s celebratory, 230-year-old opera has much potential to view the way we  see our own leaders’ use of power and clemency. In some respect a contemporary dialogue with Mozart’s work could have achieved more. Nevertheless, it’s a handsome looking staging and one that was carried off by some mouthwatering vocal artistry.

Heavily clad in scarlet and emphasising her character’s manipulative hand, there was no holding back the vengeance in UK-based Australian soprano Helena Dix’s electrifying performance as Vitellia. Dix’s return to the stage after her near-fatal battle with COVID-19 last year was nothing less than sensational. With both healthy and dynamic range and technique, from whisper-like to volcanic, and ornamental riches to add, Dix’s performance appeared effortless throughout. And God forbid her Vitellia succeeded in taking the throne. But in seeing Sesto accept punishment for his actions, Vitellia’s remorse surfaces and Dix captures it in stunning heartfelt form in Act 2’s Non più di fiori.

It was equally rewarding having UK-based Australian mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby back, whose passionate and agitated Sesto deservedly earned Tito’s clemency. Delivering magnificent soulfulness and grit, Carby convinced in portraying Sesto’s unrequited love for Vitellia while being putty in her hands, her Act 1 Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio an especially throttling display of heartfelt emotion in agreeing to murder Tito.

In the titular role, Bradley Daley’s customarily striking and buttressed tenor disappointingly fell short of his best. A disconcerting unease marred Daley’s Tito, who appeared somewhat stiff and worn and an easy target for foul play. While Tito’s authority lacked, his commander of the guard brought some convincing strength in Andrew Collis’s loyal Publio.

In tandem with the meat of the plot lies the romance between Vitellia’s sister Servilia and Sesto’s friend Annio, which spices and convolutes the drama with interest. In the trouser role, beautifully voiced mezzo-soprano Eleanor Greenwood gave total purpose to Annio, rendering him with sincerity and elevating his part aptly as he plants the seed in Tito’s head to grant forgiveness for Sesto’s crime. And soprano Mikayla Tate’s purity of tone and presence served up ample credibility as Servilia.

Containing a rich mix of powerfully driven duets, trios and more, as well as a chorus of just 16 who sang resplendently beyond their number as the people of Rome, La Clemenza di Tito made an impressionable and uplifting start to Australia’s newest opera company. “Our dream is to build an inclusive and community-driven company”, says Coleman-Wright in the program’s welcome. That, I hope, is something Australians of all walks of life can be part of.

La Clemenza di Tito

National Opera Canberra

Llewellyn Hall, ANU

Until 17th April 2021


Production Photos: Peter Hislop