Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Inaugural 2015 OperaChaser Awards and Commendations

The Inaugural 2015 OperaChaser Awards and Commendations

Award for Outstanding Production, The Rabbits, Opera Australia,
Barking Gecko and Melbourne Festival
photo credit: Jon Green

As 2015 draws to a close, it's time to extend my thanks to all involved in creating the ephemeral beauty of opera in performance and give mention to those who have contributed in sharing their artistic pursuits by nourishing their audiences with immeasurable and lasting enjoyment.

In compiling the inaugural OperaChaser Awards and Commendations, the joy of reminiscing on a year loaded with more than 70 fully staged productions at home in Melbourne and around the world is a privilege I don't take for granted. There is no ceremony, no trophy and no prize, but I sincerely hope that these awards bring a little pleasure to the deserved artists who brought excellence to the art of opera and all who continue to dig deep into their artistic, dramatic and creative energies.

2015 OperaChaser Melbourne Awards
From 18 productions and 5 concert performances*

The Rabbits: Opera Australia, Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Melbourne Festival

Concert Performance
I Puritani: Victorian Opera
featuring Jessica Pratt, Celso Albelo and conductor Richard Mills

Innovative Opera Company
Victorian Opera

Luke Leonard
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, Gertrude Opera (Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival)

Male in a Supporting Role
Shane Lowrencev
as Leporello, Don Giovanni, Opera Australia

Steven Gallop
as Caspar, Der Freischütz, Melbourne Opera

Female in a Supporting Role
Jane Ede
as Countess Almaviva, The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia

Milijana Nikolic
as Princess Eboli, Don Carlos, Opera Australia


Set Design
Robert Jones
Costume Design
Gabriela Tylesova
The Rabbits, Opera Australia, Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Melbourne Festival

Lighting Design

* I was not in attendance at Victorian Opera's new production of The Flying Dutchman. 

2015 OperaChaser Australian Commendations
From 9 productions seen in Brisbane and Sydney.

Bajazet, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney
Male in a Lead Role
Christopher Lowrey
as Gernando, Faramondo Göttingen International Handel Festival production, Brisbane Baroque

Female in a Lead Role
Latonia Moore
as Aida, Aida, Handa and Opera Australia 
Erin Helyard

2015 OperaChaser International Commendations
From 45 productions seen in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Madrid, Munich, New York, San Francisco, St Louis, Stuttgart, Vienna and Washington.


Innovative Opera Company
The Dallas Opera

Calixto Bieto
Jenůfa, Stuttgart Opera

Male in a Lead Role
Pavol Breslik
as Nemorino, L'elisir d'amore, Zurich Opera

Female in a Lead Role 
Olga Kulchynska
as Giulietta, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Zurich Opera

Evelino Pidò
Rigoletto, Vienna State Opera

I'd also like to thank everyone who makes the front of house experience memorable so there's one more commendation I'd like to share.

Outstanding Usher
Hector at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Once again, thank you to all!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Coming out to play in extraordinary form, Cats euphoria returns to Melbourne

Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Cats is extraordinary entertainment and a plump song and dance spectacle based on T.S.Elliott's children's poems in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats from 1939. Millions already know that but I'm a little perplexed by the euphoria.

Since the show's premiere in Melbourne in 1985 it returns for the fifth time in an updated revival from London's  Palladium Theatre by director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Gillian Lynne.

Those millions are well familiar with both the show and possibly the book. It has played in cities worldwide since its premiere in London's West End in 1981, cities that I've likely visited. But where have I been? I've never taken myself out of my way nor been taken along to see it. And unless those poems were read to me predating my earliest memories, I've had no contact with the book. I rather feel very much the odd one out, much like the supposed star of the show, Grizzabella, played by Aussie pop icon, Delta Goodrem.

But this sensational Melbourne cast show that everyone's a star in Cats. Every one of the Jellicles Cats gets a voice and a chance to illuminate the audience with their exciting lives on the night of the Jellicles Ball, when their leader and sage, Old Deuteronomy, chooses one amongst them to rise to The Heaviside Layer, to be reborn into a new Jellicles life. Grizzabella, the glamourpuss outcast, is the chosen.

In her musical theatre stage debut, Delta Goodrem makes it look easy being the star of the show. There's little stage time to dilly-dally with, a song and a half to sing and a strut about the stage to look vulnerable, for which the high heels help in that regard. Sadly, the lighting doesn't. But it is Goodrem's gorgeously channeled voice, full of robust warmth and purity, that fires "Memories", a song I only ever associated with a long ago TV advertisement for long distance calling (before the ubiquitous mobile phone added FaceTime). Unashamedly, the poignancy of that commercial cemented a benchmark and Goodrem handled it with power and pride, but more could be milked of the pathos without overworking the vibrato. It didn't matter to a theatre full of fans who went berserk mid-song as her top register revved up and opened marvellously. It didn't matter because there was bucketloads of entertainment on tap to go with it.

Lashings of praise needs to be served to the rest of the cat cast who sport names far cuter and fancier than my old family pet Kitty, dance with astonishing style and gymnastic athleticism, then manage to sing almost as brilliantly while doing so. Associate director and choreographer Joanne Robinson has worked wonders with them.

Christopher Favaloro almost steals the show with precision perfect balletic splendour as the magical Mr Mistoffelees. Matt McFarlane's pulsating warmth of voice and diplomatic aplomb adds spring to Munkustrap. In Puccini-like amorous duet, Josh Piterman as Growltiger and Samantha Morley as Griddlebone elevate the moment in declaring "Abbiamo trovato l'amore" / "We have found love", and I wondered how many in the audience would take themselves off to an opera.

Sarah Kate Landy as Bombalurina and Amy Berrisford as Demeter stir up a stunningly saucy “Macavity" to the point just short of a strip-tease. The melodious and charming-voiced Ross Hannaford darts about full of boyish energy as the lean and likeable Skimbleshanks and Jason Wasley portrayed Old Deuteronomy in commanding style and tempered, charismatic voice. The list of talents goes on.

It's all so exhilarating and the tunes so catchy that, despite the generally fine diction, the verse feels tangled with the choreography, leaving little to ponder before being shoved along to the next scene. I should've read the book!

Though John Napier's single set design and its glowing full-moon backdrop remain static for the entire show, its heap of trash that arcs around and spills from the stage fringe renders a playground of superb monumentality that lends a little purpose to the feline characters within. The kaleidoscopic, kinetic lighting design keeps well-tuned to the dance routines but too much is lost in the low lux levels. Details shine, however, in the beautiful body-suited costumes with furry add-ons, especially when given the chance to see them up-close off-stage as the cats parade in the theatre aisles (where a seat is highly recommended and which services a quick exit).

Musical director Paul White created a musical soundscape as equally comforting and sumptuous as the theatre it fills on opening night. Nothing less than a live orchestra would satisfy me but the voiceover telling us so made it seem like a real privilege - perhaps it was because they were unseen (from my dress circle side seat). And the stereophonic sound quality rang with flawless delivery.

A magical, meow-wow festive finish was followed by a standing ovation. It won't be soon, but I have it in me to see Cats again. Only, in the end, when the poster star is lifted into the fly tower on an oversized tyre, I want to know this little book I was deprived of. I'll be sure to be well-versed in T.S. Elliot's seemingly delightful pussy poems next time.

Production photographs: Hagen Hopkins

Friday, December 18, 2015

A big year of opening nights ahead for opera in Melbourne for 2016

Melbourne's six opera companies are preparing a bigger, beefier year of diverse works across an array of fine city theatres in 2016 with no less than 25 fully staged productions set to hit the stages.

Everything in scale from the titanic staging of Wagner's four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, in a revival of Opera Australia's first Ring Cycle in 2013, to a small boutique staging of Malcolm Williamson's Our Man in Havana, as part of Lyric Opera of Melbourne's continuing Australian Opera Series, will invigorate local audiences with the ineffable power of opera.

As 2015 draws to a close, only Opera Australia and Victorian Opera have full details of opening nights, season runs and cast lists. Opera Australia will present three operas in the autumn season, of which Bizet's The Pearlfishers and Verdi's Luisa Miller are new productions. Victorian Opera's growth continues with a palatable mix of established repertoire and new works as they lead the way in innovation into a promising 11th year.

Melbourne Opera will kickstart the opera calendar in February with W.A. Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio but details are yet to emerge on the cast and creative team. A move from the Athenaeum Theatre to the colossal Regent Theatre for a new production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser in August is a great sign of optimism ahead.

From the smaller operatives, details are sketcky except that we know that Lyric Opera of Melbourne is building on its strengths to present three exciting productions in 2016. CitiOpera have indicated dates for their first production, Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, and we should expect a second production later in the year. 

Most pleasingly, Gertrude Opera have set dates for a return to regional Victoria for the second Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival, featuring the Australian premiere of Jake Heggie's To Hell and Back. They have also indicated both a revival of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul and David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.

Below is a list of opening nights throughout the year and links to either the production, with full details if known, or the the company's home page. Take a look and put them in your calendar.

Dominica Matthews, Jane Ede & Lorina Gore as The Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold; photo Jeff Busby

Wed 3rd Feb: Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) W.A. Mozart
Melbourne Opera

Mon 15th Feb: Voyage to the Moon (2016) Calvin Bowman and Alan Curtis
Victorian Opera

Tue 1st Mar: Banquet of Secrets (2016) Paul Grabowsky and Steve Vizard
Victorian Opera

Sat 2nd Apr: Ariadne auf Naxos (1916) Richard Strauss

Tue 12th Apr: Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) Gaetano Donizetti
Victorian Opera

Tue 3rd May: La bohème (1896) Giacomo Puccini
Opera Australia

Sat 7th May: The Pearlfishers (1863) Georges Bizet
Opera Australia

Mon 16th May: Luisa Miller (1849) Giuseppe Verdi
Opera Australia

May: HMS Pinafore (1878) William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Melbourne Opera (date yet to be announced)

Mon 20th Jun: The Darkest Night
Victorian Opera

Sat 16th Jul: Cinderella (1899) Jules Massenet
Victorian Opera

Thu 28th Jul: The Pied Piper (2016) Richard Mills
Victorian Opera

Aug: Tannhäuser (1845) Richard Wagner
Melbourne Opera (date yet to be announced)

Sat 13th Aug: Laughter and Tears
Featuring Arie Antiche and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (1892) 
Victorian Opera

Fri 2nd - Sun 4th Sep: Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival
Including Jake Heggie's To Hell and Back (2006) and  Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth (1847)
Gertrude Opera (Awaiting information on further production programming)

Fri 30th Sep: Four Saints in Three Acts (1933) Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein

Oct: Anna Bolena (1830) Gaetano Donizetti
Melbourne Opera (date yet to be announced)

Mon 21st Nov: Das Rheingold (1869) Richard Wagner
Opera Australia

Wed 23rd Nov: Die Walkurie (1870) Richard Wagner
Opera Australia

Fri 25th Nov: Siegfried (1876) Richard Wagner
Opera Australia

Mon 28th Nov: Götterdämmerung (1876) Richard Wagner
Opera Australia

Details of opening dates yet to be announced:

Pygmalion (1748) Jean-Phillippe Rameau
Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Our Man in Havana (1963) Malcolm Williamson
Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Il Signor Bruschino (1813) Gioachino Rossini  
 Lyric Opera of Melbourne

The Consul (1950) Gian Carlo Menotti
Gertrude Opera

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (2002) David Lang
Gertrude Opera

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Los Angeles Opera's magnificently sung and other-worldly Norma

Two striking leads, soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, share the stage in Los Angeles Opera's magnificently cast and fiercely sung new production directed by Anne Bogart.

Angela Meade as Norma and Jamie Barton as Adalgisa
Despite the two leads and two characters having no familial connection, what is achieved is a remarkable pairing of artists in a work set ablaze with emotional conflicts, forgiveness and ineffable love which unfold in spectacular and dramatic fashion. Norma and Adalgisa have secretly broken their vow of virginity, are in love with the same man and in bed with the occupying enemy, the Roman Consul Pollione.

Meade and Barton seem to work from within and together in order to create a perceived sibling relationship full of intensity as only siblings know. In the subsequent fleshing out of unfolding events their attention to vocal detail is palpable and their unity in performance is sublime.

Meade portrays Norma with such verisimilitude that her final self-sacrificial act of death feels in accord with the immense potency she expresses in her character's complexities. Meade does so with a precious vocal instrument that impresses both technically and dramatically. In Meade's Norma we feel her wavering emotional state and her outwardly stalwart determination before she allows us to feel at peace with her own final atonement and death-walk to the pyre. From the start, Meade imbues confidence in her performance with a meditative and thrilling rendition of the opera's bel canto pinnacle, "Casta diva", all the way from recitative through to aria and cabaletta. The voice has staying-power, is agile and luscious, and the many register shifts are counterbalanced gloriously with range of volume and depth of colour.

Russell Thomas and Angela Meade 
At Meade's side, Barton is no shadow as Adalgisa. Recent winner of the 2015 Richard Tucker Award, Barton matches Meade's resilience with a polished and creamy mezzo-soprano. Plump with exciting expressivity and sympathetic control when blending in duets and ensemble, Barton's delectable talents are poignantly on show in Act II's duet with Meade in "Mira, o Norma" as the two melt harmoniously into song as Aldalgisa compels Norma to show empathy for her children before the two make a heartfelt declaration of friendship.

In an imposing Los Angeles Opera debut, Russell Thomas portrays a formidable and adrenalised, battle-ready Pollione, infusing his ember-warm and whipping resonant tenor with a cooling, attractive vibrato. Morris Robinson is a reckoning cornerstone as Oroveso, Norma's father and head of the Druids, with his thunderous, granular and stout bass. Young artists Lacey Jo Benter and Rafael Moras fill the roles of Clotilde and Flavio respectively with finely voiced, admirable performances. The Los Angeles Opera Chorus particularly impress with perceptible individual flights of voice and collective fluidity as the impatient men and women of Gaul.

Although a clear sense of contrast and conflict pervade the work, Anne Bogart's direction is characterised by a well-intended duality of approach but limps along and lacks sophistication. A softly stylised choreographed flow, danced by the young virginal priestesses (choreographed by Barney O'Hanlon), occasionally seeps into the gestures of the cast who otherwise move with weighted-down majesty. Even Norma's two children are curiously choreographed as she raises the dagger in a vengeful act of borderline insanity before throwing her weapon down in self-loathing.

Angela Meade at right as Norma with the Los Angeles Opera Chorus
The duality continues, but successfully so, in Neil Patel's visually minimalistic and single set design that is both economical, intelligent and striking. Norma's 50-100 B.C. setting in Gaul is given an other-worldly light. A curving solid wall with rectilinear openings on stage left appears to symbolise the Roman occupation of Gaul's contrasting lightweight natural timber construction on stage right. Much of the drama and ritual becomes focused on a disc-shaped cutout in the warped, timber-ramped central stage area that appears at times to be the enormous moon in the background's shadow, perfectly juxtaposing the 'grove's' ritual significance. Duane Schuler's lighting design adds mystical depth and James Schuette's costumes pay period homage.

Conducting in the pit, the indefatigable Los Angeles Opera Music Director, James Conlon, sculptured glowing, sympathetic and appealing musical support for his on-stage artists. The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra spun their beauty with tautness, the strings and woodwind in particular displaying impeccable underlying energy. If anything, Maestro Conlon kept a lid on musical volatility, punctuating the score sparingly while providing generous space for the large voices to project across their entire range. It was only in Act II's climactic run when the lid truly lifted off and percussive largesse overflowed.

Despite the production's occasional inertness, the magnificence of the voices complete the dramatic narrative with overwhelming strength and, combined with its contemplative visual beauty, this Norma soars heavenly high.

Production photographs: Ken Howard

Friday, December 4, 2015

A blissfull union of comedy and music in Pinchgut Opera's L'Amant Jaloux

In 1778, a sparkling comedic opera received its premiere in France at Versailles. André Grétry's L’Amant Jaloux (The Jealous Lover) enthralled for near on 50 subsequent years but it was not until Thursday night, some 237 years later, that it tickled an audience in theatrical form Down Under.

Alexandra Oomens, Jessica Aszodi and Celeste Lazarenko
Sydney's Pinchgut Opera have a knack for resurrecting the neglected, showing no interest in the sweets of popular repertoire - the less performed or the more obscure baroque and early classical work, the more intriguing they seem to become. It's a point of difference from any other opera company in the country and it offers unique marketability. With it, the now reliable quality and vitality of Pinchgut Opera's productions bring enormous appeal.  L’Amant Jaloux is no different.

The three-act opera is a petite music box of glittering arias and ensembles full of vivid colour, fascinating depth and a delightful freshness that melts away any preconceptions that only the big names of the musical firmament possessed genius and originality.

Both at the harpsichord and conducting, Erin Helyard's authority over Ghétry's music allowed it to leap with energetic beauty. Helyard conducts as if every note emanates from his fingertips and he stands amongst the finest conductors who contribute to the pleasure of 'watching' music.

On opening night, the 27 musicians of The Orchestra of the Antipodes transferred his energy with exquisite shape and precision, as well as providing affecting support for six sensational, well-cast soloists who brought harmonising strength in voice and humour.

Jessica Aszodi as Jacinte and David Greco as Lopez
Baritone David Greco entertains as the wealthy and smug merchant, Lopez, with a voice of broad smokey appeal that billows with pomposity. At just 20 years old, Léonore, Lopez's widowed daughter (who he wants to prevent from remarrying), is fervently performed by Celeste Lazarenko. With unattractive traces of spoilt girlishness as she stomps about her room, Lazarenko charms with expressive acting, a secure, crystalline soprano and pulsating coloratura. Don Alonze is her jealous lover to whom Ed Lyon mustered the immaturity of a child and the passion of bullfighter while thrusting forth his adrenalin-charged, legato-rich and warm tenor.

Don Alonze's sister and Léonore's friend Isabelle is daintily portrayed by the sweet soprano-voiced Alexandra Oomens. Isabelle takes refuge in the Lopez home after fleeing from her guardian with the aid of the French soldier Florival who Andrew Goodwin endears with bumbling boyishness accompanied by a gorgeously radiant tenor. And running about while running the household and just about the entire opera with acute bubbliness as the maid Jacinte, soprano Jessica Aszodi impresses across a vocal range as hearty as it is lucent.

Léonore's patience with Don Alonze's jealousy is put to the test as is his awareness of having to curtail it. Everyone hopes for something but only in a maelstrom is resolution achieved. Contentment isn't handed over on silver platter and change doesn't come easy.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber guides the story with clarity, eliciting exaggerated gestures and pantomime-like expression from his cast in a marvellous period piece presented with vibrantly coloured, quirkily proportioned attire by costume designer Christie Milton.

Set designer David Fleischer shapes the stage area with an obliquely set, high-panelled wall punctured with concealed doorways and cupboards which provide ample hidey-holes for quick escapes - often not quick enough. After a marginally trepidatious start to Act I's parlour setting, the dramatic and comedic flow settles into gear, reaching its best form in Act II as the action shifts into comedic crossfire in Léonore's bedroom.

Every musical moment soars and each soloist found every skerrick of character portrayal with ease when soaked in the French-sung music. But the recitative-empty English raw word, delivered with an array of accents, sometimes felt disconnected. It's a small quibble which, despite the production's enamouring charm, also highlighted how successful L'Amant Jaloux could be if presented with an updated, contemporary or abstract shot.

With two stunning entr'actes cleverly blended with the scene changes, featuring Stephen Lalor on mandolin in the Hummel's Mandolin Concerto in G major and Melissa Farrow on baroque flute in Grétry's own Flute Concerto in C major, the musical richness and comic delights on stage united as blissfully as the happy ending brings.

Production photographs: Prudence Upton