Monday, March 30, 2015

Soprano Latonia Moore's Aida outshines a brazenly spectacular production on Sydney Harbour

Triumphal Scene: Photo by Hamilton Lund
Big! Everything about Handa and Opera Australia's new harbour-side production of Aida in Sydney is big. It begs the question, just how brazenly spectacular does opera need to be? This time, Opera Australia seems to say big enough to allow the art of opera to be usurped by the event it forms part of. Unlike the event's more tasteful predecessors, this Aida reflects an off-course Mardi Gras-parading veneer of tongue-in-cheek glamour. Sydney already has such an event and it's repeated annually on Oxford Street.

On opening night, Act I began with such problematic, brutish volume that I imagined the whole world was witnessing the same uncomfortable experience and, quite irrationally, that the future of opera was being compromised. In the opera's first great trio, "Vieni, o diletta, appressati", when Amneris, notices Radamès' disturbed behaviour as Aida enters and suspects Aida as her rival, Verdi's magnificence was undetectable.

Once you get used to the sound, entertainment value for money comes quickly (and the food and drink options are happily not over-priced) but for all its spectacularity, the most alluring aspect that drags you into the mystique of opera is the brilliance of American soprano Latonia Moore's performance as Aida in a role she is making her own on the world's great opera stages.

Director Gale Edwards blends ancient Egypt with the modern and fantastical in a world of military pomp to produce both an alien and overwhelming place sprinkled with refined images of present-day references to power and war. Dealing with the almost 100 stage performers in the roles of priests, priestesses, soldiers Ethiopians slaves and prisoners, Egyptians, dancers and camels (one brief appearance in the Triumphal Scene carrying Radamès returning victorious over the Ethiopians), Edwards guides this world with symmetrical picture perfection throughout. But despite the layers and the stage's breadth, it feels un-inspiringly restrained and Lucas Jervies' eclectic choreography (reaching ludicrous heights in an Ethiopian female-slaves' can-can) only mirrors it further. After Act II's fireworks were over, a 30-minute interval made the return to your seat feel almost unnecessary but Acts III and IV actually brought greater closer-at-hand dramatic relief and a sense of reward.

Looming over set and costume designer Mark Thompson's stage is the monumental bust of Nefertiti, an 18 metre high centrepiece referencing the 3,300-year-old 48-centimetre high limestone bust discovered in 1912. Nefertiti guards vast reserves of Egyptian oil, one eye blasted out in a clever extrapolation of the diminutive statue's missing left eye. Nefertiti rotates to reveal a grand altar/throne to set the scene for the solemn ceremonies at the Temple of Vulcan and the later glittering Triumphal Scene. Thank the heavens there were no other moving parts but her blown-out eye provided a poignant ending to the opera as Amneris, regretful of her actions, weeps in song.

How far Thompson let his responsibilities trickle down is not exactly known but it seems a gifted drag-queen had some involvement. Tonnes of glittering colour and copious amounts of fabric in costumes of all creative persuasion inspired by ancient Egyptian, Ethiopian and 20th century military uniforms dazzle the eye. Just about everyone gets to wear a cape.

Milijana Nikoloic and Latonia Moore: Photo by Prudence Upton
Rising above all, Latonia Moore brought much appreciated restfulness and intimacy with her first aria "Ritorna vincitor", setting herself immediately apart from everything and everyone around her. Moore delivered a performance of subliminal vocal and dramatic beauty, only minutely tarnished by a few miss-matched aspirations and a whopping costume and its bright yellow headdress resembling a bursting vacuum dustbag. Moore's full, dark chest voice, scintillating highs and controlled, piercingly sustained notes intoxicated. The pinnacle of her performance came in her Act III opening aria as Aida waits for  Radamès on the eve of his marriage to Amneris in an ominous farewell-like song to the man and country she loves in "Qui Radamès verra...O patria mia". Alone on stage, under the rippling lilac light across Nefertiti, Moore's scene captured the inexplicable beauty of opera, far outstripping all extravagances of the night. Matt Scott's reliably atmospheric lighting demonstrated the grandeur of simplistic effects.

As a steely Amneris, Milijana Nikolic exhibits a rich, deeply luscious mezzo in a performance which moved from coldly statuesque to one of emotive force to compete with her rival Aida for Radamès' heart. Both princesses outshone an overall satisfyingly, not exceptionally-cast ensemble.

Gennadi Dubinsky as the King of Egypt and David Parkin as the cobra-backed High Priest were appropriately authoritative and fervently voiced. As Aida's father Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, Michael Honeyman acted more with heroic charm than that of a captive's urgency, his clean, youthful baritone needing just a little more grit. Eva Kong added attractive brightness and purity in the role of the High Priestess and the Opera Australia Chorus sang with a well-rehearsed majesty.

Walter Fraccaro: Photo by Prudence Upton
But the task of leading the Egyptians to war appeared too great for Walter Fraccaro's Radamès, who appeared one-dimensional and disengaged, firing little chemistry with the slave princess he presumably is madly in love with. Fraccaro was most disappointing given the great experience he has in the role. In voice, Fraccaro displays power to impress but expressive range was lacking and his upper range lacked finesse. However, Fraccaro finally delivered the goods to convince, bursting forth with conviction in his Act IV duet with Nikolic as Radamès refuses to defend himself after the discovery of his rendezvous with Aida despite Amneris' plea in "Già i Sacerdoti adunansi".

Conductor Brian Castles-Onion and the musicians of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra were doing a stellar job keeping the colour afloat, expectedly but disappointingly out of site from somewhere below stage, but boastful sound transmission to the more than 200 speakers pummelled much of the first two acts prior to interval.

After the cast, musicians and creative team took their bows, more fireworks rocked the harbour. I'm not sure if I missed anything else after that.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tosca's tragedy unpacked fresh in a new Lyric Opera of Chicago production

From the first decidedly and beautifully drawn out notes of Puccini's score, the curiously over-sized fragmented female portrait spread over a three-level scaffold and Richard Ollarsaba's impressive vocal resonance accompanying his entrance in the smaller role as the revolutionary escapee Angelotti, Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Tosca punches with a sense of freshness and talent from the start. It's fortunate a strong cast of finely voiced and nuanced performances continue, giving this Tosca something special, but director John Caird's reinventions and directorial surprises come hit-and-miss.

                                       Mark Delavan as Scarpia and Hui He as Tosca
The story is updated from its original 1801 setting in Rome to the same city around 100 years later around the time Puccini wrote the opera. Set and costume designer Bunny Christie's glum, grey-cemented, un-ornamented aesthetic of a three-act lofty, boxed enclosure effectively removes the drama from its usual attachment to the opera's three distinctive Roman settings (the church of Sant'Andrea, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant'Angelo). The effect creates a tension between elucidating Caird's intended historical update and conversely stripping away attachment to a particular place. The political landscape appears fabricated and confused, not helped by a gaping blown-out hole in the set's roof, more distracting than informative, which makes reference to the city being ravaged by an enemy.

Act I's three-level painter's scaffold gets plenty of use, supporting Scarpia high above the gloriously sung 'Te Deum' while he is being spied by the bishop in an awkward-looking finale to the act. Act III's usual shepherd boy solo is replaced by a young sweet-voiced girl, Annie Wagner, who also appears in each act as a reflection of Tosca's own peasant childhood. It's a tasteful idea but it doesn't attain the poignancy it could, especially so in Act II, in one of opera's greatest dramatic scenes. During the extended pensive orchestral ending after Tosca murders Scarpia, the figure appears clumsily and Tosca looks more perplexed than transfixed before departing the stage.

But in Act III, Caird's other spark, the decision to hang the body of the murdered Angelotti in front of Cavaradossi (who didn't know he was already killed) is riveting. The impact on Cavaradossi is moving and gives his subsequent aria added emotional power. But overall, there's a feeling that every idea brainstormed is vying for attention and while there's ample detail the results come mixed.

Jorge de Leon as Cavaradossi and Hui He as Tosca
As the eponymous Tosca, Chinese soprano Hui He brings vibrancy and charm to the devout catholic and lauded singer accidentally caught in a ruinous political and violent mess. Hui He's Tosca is jealous, a soupçon highly-strung but delightfully playful. And how her stirringly rich creamy voice wraps Tosca with un-melodramatic passion. In the  opera's most famous aria, "Vissi d'arte", in which Tosca questions God about why he has abandoned her, Hui He sings with clean enunciation, effortless phrasing and gravitas, working her vocals expansively and most expressively in the mid and upper ranges then effortlessly lengthens a high pianissimo to a gentle rest. In the lowest range, however, the power of the voice collapses.

Spanish tenor Jorge de León, as the painter Cavaradossi and harborer of the escaped Angelotti, makes a convincing impact as Tosca's lover while sharing with her a special unison. In his solo work de León has immensity of amplitude and displays confidence in his highest range. Stilted phrasing and a slovenly legato, however, take away from an otherwise solid performance.

Mark Devalan's Scarpia is a thuggish, less deep-seated villain who entertains Tosca more romantically than forcing himself on her lustfully. It makes him look vulnerable when it is he who should be playing the cards, not entirely giving credence to Tosca's ensuing act of murder. Devalan does however show great detail in his performance with a fearsome tone but as much as it is a big voice, it gets lost in the full orchestra and chorus of the "Te Deum".

Dale Travis enlivens the role of the sacristan with pottering prominence. David Congeloso as Spoleta, Bradley Smoak as Sciarrone and Anthony Clark Evans add dramatic weight and vocal balance to complete the cast.

Puccini's score was completed with the beauty and shape which conductor Dmitri Jurowski opened the performance with, keeping an even tempo and drawing noteworthily superb string playing and a consistently solid sound from the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Plenty of attractive ideas imbedded in this new production of a popular operatic work together with a bevy of talented singers will keep the production alive for a few seasons despite some questionable creative choices. But the first thing needing to be addressed is fixing that hole in the ceiling.

Photos courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mozart's Marriage of Figaro gets a cleverly comic and glamorous outfit at the LA Opera

It isn't uncommon for weddings to be fraught with preparatory issues but only an unlucky few could encounter the twists and turns that beset Figaro's marriage to his bride Susanna in Mozart's 1786 opera buffa masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro. Completing LA Opera's presentation of operas inspired by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais's Figaro trilogy (though not opening in chronological order), every ounce of the comic is cleverly extracted with nuanced performances accompanied by vocally cast evenness (sometimes a little too even) while the action is driven swiftly along throughout the story's day-long disturbances.

Roberto Tagliavini and Pretty Yende

In this glamorously detailed and intellectually considered production from 2004 by director Ian Judge, the formerly here-and-there Figaro from The Barber of Seville has settled into palace life as Count Almaviva's valet, the aristocrat he aided by facilitating the Count's marriage to Dr Bartolo's entrapped ward Rosina.

The curtain rises to reveal a large palace room in the throws of redecoration. Figaro is painting the bridal room in revolutionary blood red in what seems a reference to the political change that his servant class is making to challenge the aristocracy.

Act I's servant chamber sees the comings and goings of characters of all classes who shape the story's complexity then shifts to Countess (Rosina) Almaviva's adjacent gold leaf adorned chamber in Act II. The delineation between the classes becomes less and less obvious as the day progresses and culminates in the Count's inability to distinguish between his own wife and her maidservant Susanna (Figaro's bride) who he relentlessly pursues.

Set designer Tim Goodchild's plush, solid palette gleams under lighting designer Mark Doubleday's scant but grand lighting, much as American artist Edward Hopper's iconic 1942 work Nighthawks exudes. With Deirdre Clancy's glamorous cocktail-hour leaning costumes, the staging cleverly presents the upheaval of class without immersion in a strictly referenced period, though mid-20th century Franco Spain might be the background. Political elements fade and the characters are sharply focused in a battle of the classes and one of the sexes over its four-acts. Here men are deemed fickle but Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte reverse that judgement in their later collaborative venture in Cosi fan tutte of 1789, keeping fair the debate in the battle of the sexes. The battle continues.

A hard-working cast navigate the plot with total assurance to deliver non-stop, riveting comic entertainment while still embodying underlying emotional gravitas. Opening night singing, however, didn't always blaze like every other element of the production. A tendency to lose shape in the lower vocal ranges bemusedly plagued the leading soloists (perhaps due to dealing with acting demands) and ensembles were not always paced evenly, but I'm certain this can be improved upon as the season progresses.

In his company debut as Figaro, Roberto Tagliavini cuts a noble figure to equal his master. Whilst suave and rich in his bass-baritone and displaying smooth control between head and chest voice, just a little more power to dictate events would have been hoped for. Soprano Pretty Yende is a perfectly cheeky and playful Susanna, effervescently bright-voiced and expressive in tone. Together with Tagliavini's Figaro a convincing pact and chemistry abounds.

As a suspicious Count Almaviva, Ryan McKinny conjures a dapper despot as he moves with meerkat-like charm, sporting appealing bronzed baritone weight though needing greater projection in ensemble. Having married her love in The Barber of Seville but now languishing in a state of inertness, the forever seemingly trapped Rosina, Countess Almaviva, is elegantly performed by Guanqun Yu, displaying clever razor-sharp crescendoes and a luscious timbre. The Countess laments her loss of happiness in the heartfelt Act III aria "Dove sono i bei momenti" and Yu delivers it with requisite beauty.

Pretty Yende, Renée Rapier and Guanqun Yu

Renée Rapier trousers up to boil with hormonal adolescent fervour and her seemingly effortless boyish behaviour and voice sparkle. Doctor Bartolo is monumentally depicted by the thunderously voiced Kristinn Sigmundsson. With her juicy pearlescent mezzo-soprano, Lucy Schaufer would make you completely believe her Marcellina was a former show-girl as she frolics about in exaggeratedly ribboned splendour.

So Young Park skips and sings as Barbarina with memorable aplomb and the smaller roles of Robert Brubaker's Don Basilio and Joel Sorensen's Don Curzio are filled impressively with large, handsomely voiced entrances which just about skittle those of the leading soloists.

Keeping an easy tempo, James Conlon crafted Mozart's score with smooth, elastic beauty on opening night and demonstrated the special place the opera has in his heart (together with Verdi's Falstaff as he proudly talked of in the pre-performance talk). At times a more velocitous pace could have stirred a better result but regardless, the LA Opera Orchestra delighted with precise playing.

The audience burst into shouts of enthusiasm for seemingly everything about LA Opera's opening night of The Marriage of Figaro. By the closing performance this could very well lift the roof of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Los Angeles Music Centre.

Photos by Craig T. Mathew

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lyric Opera of Chicago's The Passenger: Achingly expressive 5-star-plus riveting theatre

Amanda Majevski, Daveda Karanas and Brandon Jovanovich
At every performance of The Passenger, a confiscated violin is smashed because the violinist defiantly plays what he wants and not what his captors ordered, a murmuring chorus drags you into depths of despair and a woman is beaten senselessly. Here, on the stage of the Civic Theatre, in the league of the most riveting theatre you're likely to feel, Lyric Opera of Chicago's The Passenger is, at the very least, a five-star production.

On board a luxury cruise liner bound for Brazil in the 1960s, Liese, a former SS overseer at the Auschwitz concentration camp, sees a woman she is convinced is Marta, a prisoner she obsessed over but who she believed had perished. Travelling with her husband Walter, who is taking up a diplomatic posting, Liese divulges the secret to him for the first time. But, as far away as she journeys, her past is inescapable and Liese is both unrepentant and guilt-ridden as the hellish past emerges below deck.

Based on Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz's novel of the same name, The Passenger is touched by first-hand experience of Holocaust atrocities. Composer Miecyzslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who escaped to Russia during WWII, wrote his opera in 1968 to a libretto by Alexander Medvedev and director David Pountney's discovery of the work has transformed narrative and notes into an unforgettably moving work for the stage. Pountney's direction is meticulous, crafted as if witnessing a cinematically edited story in real time, drawing from his cast something not acted for the stage, but mined from the soul.

Below the deck of a white, elegantly streamlined ship, the Auschwitz camp is recreated with shocking pseudo-realism and ingenuity by set designer, the late John Engels. A railway carriage which rolls into and out of view on tracks doubles as the female barrack bunks while also supporting a chorus of onlookers above. Metal-braced lighting stanchions flank the camp and in the rear, the incinerators and "pitch black walls of death" lurk. Under Fabrice Kebour's graphic lighting, it's hard to imagine that this set has not witnessed the horror of Auschwitz and that Marie-Jeanne Lecca's costumes belong in a wardrobe when the cloth itself seems stained by its barbarity.

Musically, conductor Sir Andrew Davis honoured every achingly expressive gesture in Weinberg's music, one bound inextricably to the narrative and which brings alive the sense of place. Through every musical shift, including elements of Jazz, the fine musicianship of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra was evident.

Amanda Majevski and Daveda Karanas
American soprano Amanda Majevski is genuinely outstanding and vocally mesmerising as Marta, the "Madonna of the barracks", and sings with extraordinary, wailing elasticity and excruciating beauty. There is strength and compassion in Marta's leadership while she imagines only the faintest hope of survival but is enlivened by the chance meeting with her boyfriend, Tadeusz. Gallantly performed by the warm, molten-voiced Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins in his company debut, Tadeusz is the one ordered to play the violin to the officers (though it's a double who stands in to impress).

As Liese, Greek-America mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas is authoritative and emotionally complex. With biting, solid vocal power, her turmoil and desperation as the older Liese is moving as she tries to garner sympathy for her former uniformed life of heeding and giving orders. Assured, evenly polished and large-voiced, American tenor Brandon Jovanovich is Walter, calculating in his sentimental attempts and more interested in his reputation than his wife's immediate breakdown, giving added clarity to Liese's own disconnected behaviour. And, amongst an entire cast that deserve praise, in her company debut, American soprano Kelly Kaduce takes the beating but rises to give a stunning performance as Kayta, the Russian freedom-fighter.

Few of us could understand an existence in such a place of evil where, as is often sung, "the gates only open inwards". If you've ever visited Auschwitz, The Passenger, with its characters gut-wrenchingly clinging to life and hope, will magnify your memories, bring tears from nowhere and beat anew at your emotional core. If you haven't, it will take you there.

Photos courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Washington National Opera's more beautiful than bleeding Dialogues of the Carmelites

In Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, a work loosely based on actual events during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, 14 Carmelite nuns are sent to the guillotine in a gruesome, solemn procession for having nothing more than devoted their lives to sacrifice and prayer. Their sheltered lives in the service of God was as incomprehensible to the suspicious authorities as theirs was of the brutality inflicted by these persecutors.

Blanche de la Forte is a young woman whose fears lead her into joining the Carmelites to take refuge. She is complex and misunderstood, protected but challenged by her family and the religious sisters. Dialogues of the Carmelites highlights both the differences in perspective and premises for common beliefs which bind community. On the contrary, it also tells of the horrific affects when compartmentalised beliefs heighten caution and fear during times of civil unrest and revolution. It is easy to agree with director Francesca Zambello when she fittingly points out in the program notes, "this opera feels so connected to the darkness of much of international politics today".

In this Washington National Opera company premiere of a work originally produced by Opéra National de Paris, the story moves fluidly with set designer Hildegard Bechtler's stylised multi-spatial construct of arcing walls on a gently revolving stage, gun-metal grey for the convent and ivory for other scenes. Claudie Gastine's costumes add belief to the revolutionary period and Mark McCullough's sharp lighting contrasts and looming shadows give enormous visual sensitivity and fearsomeness.

The staging is beautiful and many scenes evoke a religious painterly style but, as captivating as it is aesthetically and despite ardent individual performances (some loss of vocal projection aside), I was left feeling that the dramaturgy lacked tension and Zambello narrates the story rather than let it bleed. The nuns conform in a what-they-do-best manner we expect of a cliche. They pray, their piety is demonstrative and they scrum with grace but this was a time of immense turmoil when the taking of religious vows was forbidden and church property was confiscated. Around debate within the convent's walls over life, death and God's will, performances which should be pulsating are left lacking as a group.

Musically, Poulenc's score is both lucent and chilling, it smoothes both recitative and aria, it explodes with surprising shifts and it is fused to his own penetrative libretto. Originally produced for La Scala and premiering in 1957 to an Italian libretto, the opera is sung in Poulenc's approved English translation of his French version - in less than a year the opera had premiered in Milan, Paris and San Francisco with great success.

Australian conductor Anthony Walker shaped the score to create the tension of a predator circling its prey. With an attentive eye on the Washington National Opera Orchestra, Walker mustered energetic playing to produce the icy strings, the foreboding percussion and the shadowy woodwind which punctuate the score. Unfortunately, sections of the brass sounded with unappealing distraction.

In a commendable company debut as the young novice Blanche, Layla Claire is vocally expressive of her character's measure of fragility, grace and morbidity while comfortably navigating the ever-fluctuating vocal demands which Poulenc attaches to his principals. Dolora Zajick as the old prioress of the monastery, Madame de Croissy, is compelling as she combines steeliness with compassion before succumbing to a crazed death where God, she sings with vocal anguish, has abandoned her.

Elizabeth Bishop is an unflinchingly secure and a broad, gravelly-voiced Mother Marie as she escapes death but faces the ghastly future without her sisters. Leah Crocetto's company debut as Madame Lidoine impresses with a glint of silver on her dark, solid vocal performance and Ashley Emerson is spritely and vocally bright and clear as the affable but creepily premonitory Sister Constance. Charged with diplomatic self-confidence, other fine performances come from Shawn Mathey and Alan Held as Blanche's father, Chevalier de la Force, and brother, Marquis de la Force respectively.

The opera's usual three acts is presented in two perfectly balanced parts, each concluding with a gloriously sung hymn. The first part appears more internalised and theologically driven concluding with the "Ave Maria". The second part opens out to more externalised, political tensions leading to the grisly finale of the nuns' execution while "Salve Regina" is mournfully heard but interrupted by the sound of each icy slice of the guillotine. Here, squeezed into the fore-stage in a diorama-like manner, the nuns, in undergarments, mount steps to a platform, then disappear behind a wall of light while a crowd look on in silence. Sadly, despite the music's strength, the opera's anticipated chilling end came as a disappointing let down. 

Photos courtesy of Scott Suchman