Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Finely cast and musically tender but why another new production of The Pearlfishers from Opera Australia?

Pavol Breslik (Nadir) and the Opera Australia Chorus
Opening night of Opera Australia's new production of Bizet's The Pearlfishers saw a disappointing attendance at the Sydney Opera House last Friday evening. Frankly, I wouldn't have thought that Opera Australia either needed a new production of The Pearlfishers or present it quite so soon. Director Ann-Margret Pettersson's dreamy and sensitive production, which premiered in 2000, was last seen in 2011 and still had a few solid breaths in it for some future revival.

On the other hand, New York's Metropolitan Opera (which presents more than 20 productions a year) has only just greeted the work with open arms after an absence from the stage of 100 years which also seems incredulous. Widely recognised as much for its striking, mellifluous music and one of opera's most loved duets, as for its dramatic failings, it continues to be one of the repertoire's curious works that rarely seem to shed any further light on its characters. If/when it does, it is often inconsequential.

Bizet was just shy of his 25th birthday at the time of the opera's premiere in Paris in 1863 and would have been well aware of the criticisms. Part of the problem lies in the thinly veneered characters, overuse of a chorus that provides little dramatic propulsion and a final scene that has befuddled many an interpreter. Bizet could hardly be blamed for the shortfalls that plague Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré's libretto, but let praise be bestowed for his ability and attempt at turning a pudding into a soufflé. Regardless, it has held onto repertoire status as an exotic, escapist journey.

José Carbó as Zurga
Opera Australia's new production by director Michael Gow at least heads in the right direction in building a greater sense of depth to the principal character roles, but in the end it's still the musical and vocal quality together with exotic visual stimulation that ultimately keeps the work breathing. It is blessed by a superb cast and a performance underscored by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire's refined and tender interpretation. On opening night, with unhurried tempi, Tourniaire drew elegance from the fine musicianship of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, supporting his soloists attentively and allowing the Australian Opera Chorus to ring magnificently.

No longer fishermen friends, Nadir and Zurga appear as European colonialists and, together with the thuggish Nourabar (who 'steals' the role from a voiceless wandering geriatric high priest), are entrenched at home in their exotic 19th century Ceylonese setting. It doesn't come without flaws and it adds complications to the village politics, but it does give foreground to the main characters.

Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik gives Nadir adventure-seeking spontaneity and sprightly romantic charm. One of Europe's more adept performers and charismatic singers, Breslik made the long-haul trip to Australia to take the role but doesn't get the chance to exhibit the full extent of his capabilities. Nonetheless, Breslik's signature exuberance and youthful, clear and wholesome tenor were impressive as was the sympathetic and reflective power of the Act I's pensive aria "À cette voix...Je crois entendre encore".

Seeming to control the local pearl industry from behind a desk, Australian baritone José Carbó stood aloft as the fuzzy-bearded Zurga with an unflinchingly fine performance. A voice burnished, resonant and firmly planted, Carbó gave meaning and expressivity to every line in his vow of faithfulness to his friendship with Nadir over their rivalry for the same woman. Carbó's gripping rendition of Act III's aria, "L'orage est calmé...O Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge", in which he sings of remorse for ordering the deaths of Leila and Nadir for having broken their vows, was a performance highlight in which his internal turmoil was deeply felt.

Ekaterina Siurina (Leila) and Pavol Breslik (Nadir)
Leila herself, seems more punished than welcomed as the virgin priestess to which Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina brought an intensity to the role not often seen. Even concealed under a veil she emits no behavioural joy in her sacrifice to Brahma - passion was flickering and she would emerge defiant while following her heart in her allegiance of love for Nadir. Ekaterina's supple, multi-layered tonal colours and delightfully fluid coloratura gave breadth to her Leila, making her attractiveness to the spirited Nadir entirely convincing.

As Nourabad, Daniel Sumegi almost makes believe his relationship to Leila is one of an unforgivingly stern father, growling and chastising with unrelenting guttural bass, but it is never obviously apparent who this heavyweight really is.

Sadly, it's hard not to forget Act I's deadpan direction, ordinary design and stark lighting. On a flat stage, an incongruous armchair sits in front of a small shrine within a walled courtyard and a lurid tin-foil sea glitters in the background. Robert Kemp's set and costume designs, however, are far more pleasing in Acts II and III's grand ornate temple confines and Zurga's colonial shuttered study sporting wall-mounted taxidermic kill. Together with Matt Scott's more thoughtfully considered and evocative lighting design (under which the tin-foil sea glittered magically) greater visual success arrived. Gow's direction of his principal artists burst forth with visceral strength but the Opera Australia Chorus seemed forgotten. Suffering from an overall inertness, they often appeared clumsily characterless in their saffron sarongs despite their glorious, impassioned singing.

Standing out from the crowd, I also wanted to forget the two near-naked men making an appearance as processional guardians when Leila made her first entrance, but then they returned as staged fighters in dance and combat in front of a bloodthirsty crowd in Act III. The reference they make to Nadir and Zurga in the first place as admirers, then as jealous rivals, was unmistakeable but unnecessary. And what of the opera's best known Act I aria ,"Au fond du temple saint"? Breslik and Carbó, lost in their own gazes and then coming together as one, dutifully impressed with the power of music and their vow of faithfulness.

In the end, however, the characters get a little more bang and the music shines once again, but the production squeezes out other inconsistencies which make you wonder whether it's all worth the resources which could have better been put to more deserving causes.

Production photographs: Keith Saunders

Friday, January 15, 2016

Dusapin's Passion at Sydney Festival intoxicates but challenges

Sydney Festival and Sydney Chamber Opera's collaboration in bringing the Australian premiere of Passion is both instructive in introducing French composer Pascal Dusapin's intoxicating music to local audiences and courageous in programming such a contemplative and dynamic yet challenging work.

Dusapin's passionate interest in Monteverdi's composition has resulted in a mesmerising 90-minute work, more music-poetry than chamber opera, inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus, having its premiere at the 2008 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.

Elise Caluwaerts as Lei and Wiard Witholt as Lui
Orpheus journeys into the underworld to bring back his dead wife Eurydice but, knowing how it will end, she is unwilling to make the ascent. Mise-en-espace/director Pierre Audi has created a spare, trepidatious setting consisting of a stage strewn with angular glass shards, an evocative symbolic world of fragility and danger and aided by Nicholas Rayment's lighting design which touches the music with great sensitivity. Under revival director Miranda Lakerveld, the production was first seen at the 2009 Holland Festival.

Audi's picture perfectly pairs with a sense of anxiety, urgency and doubt that pervades the work as Dusapin's music sweeps the air with broad strokes and time-altering qualities. Within it, tension and harmony are completely at one across its 10 parts. Remarkably, it is a music that seems to breathe in and out in long musical breaths with deliciously haunting, highly expressive and overarching strength.

A short rehearsal period belies the polished artistry that emanated from the stage. Musically, artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera Jack Symonds exposed Dusapin's music with detailed, relaxed and expansive beauty and his 16 local musicians consistently held the music high in prominence. Long and laconic orchestral passages grease the score in which even the dulcet metallic plink of a music clock is shaped from a percussion-less music.

Wiard Witholt as Lui and Elise Caluwaerts as Lei
Soloists Elise Caluwaerts and Wiard Witholt make a deep impression in their Australian debut in enacting the doomed journey with role-immersive power as simply Lei (She) and Lui (Him). The vocal line is complex, varied and highly textured which Caluwaerts and Witholt imbue with intensity and pathos. Together the young duo unfailingly take audience attention by turning out a formidable, unlaboured and engaging performance despite the challenges that arise from Dusapin's and Rita de Letteriis's poetically weighty and cloudy English-surtitled Italian libretto. No amount of reference to the Sun bore much light on the two mythical lovers' journey, leaving a disconnection between word-vocal-music and a feeling of intellectual over-indulgence that spoiled an otherwise compelling performance.

Caluwaerts's lithely form as Lei is matched with a pliant, glowing and plush soprano that swells from a solid lower register to reach a dizzying, glassy knife-edge force. Witholt exudes an equally strong stage presence with an imposing stature and a robust baritone armoured in protective warmth and resonance.

Six vocalists, three female (Jane Sheldon, Ellen Hooper and Anna Fraser) and three male (Andrew Goodwin, Mitchell Riley, Simon Lobelson) sit in line, mid-stage behind the field of fractured glass in front of the orchestra. Referred to as The Others, they contribute a fascinating soundscape that builds depth and atmosphere by imitating various sounds of nature. But the point at which trying to figure out meaning in the poetry became exhausting and it disappointingly affected the pleasure of simply basking in the journey.

Production photographs: Jamie Williams