Friday, April 29, 2016

An absorbing, poignant and entertainingly piquant JFK at Fort Worth Opera

Daniela Mack and Matthew Worth as the Kennedys with Ensemble, Part 2
In what's surely the year's most anticipated opera world premiere, Fort Worth Opera (in a co-commission with Opéra Montréal and American Lyric Theatre) have carved a piece of operatic history with JFK, an indelibly absorbing, poignant and at times entertainingly piquant work.

Many, and I'd say most senior opera-goers, would remember that day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on 23rd November 1963. I wasn't yet born but the grainy film footage of President Kennedy's last moments alongside his wife Jackie in an open-top Cadillac, winds one right into the fatal moment. On that sunny afternoon, a man's dream to put man on the moon ended in a tragedy and a media frenzy that sent shock waves around the globe.

An insoluble presence of looming death cuts through JFK but it's also about life, of dealing with ourselves, our relationships. Its strength is in its portrayal of familiar and influential figures of American history that just as easily vape into domestic unknowns we are coerced into relating to. Politics lies at the periphery.

Royce Varek's libretto is woven with poetic universal depth and coloured with composer David T. Little's absorbing music throughout the opera's two parts and its 31 "moments". What Little and Varek (who collaborated on the successful chamber opera Dog Days), have done is master a work focusing on the last evening and final hours when the Kennedy's spent the night in Fort Worth at the Texas Hotel in a creatively fresh take consisting of time-alternating moments.

Daniela Mack and Matthew Worth
For this, familiarity with the the program notes will enormously help in understanding Little and Vavrek's mix of dreams, apparitions and mythological guides. Two prominent figures traverse the work in triplicate roles. The Greek mythological figures Clotho and Lachesis are the Fates who spin and measure life. Both figures transmute as a hotel maid and Kennedy's Secret Service agent and also as Henry Rothbone (Sean Panikkar), President Lincoln's mentally disturbed assassin and his wife Clara Harris (Talise Trevigne). Once understood, these multi-layers can be seen to provide dramatic integrity without strangling the actual "real moments".

Director and designer Thaddeus Strassberger gives JFK hugely touching life with punchy, insightful design and potent directorial handling. As the curtain rises, "TEXAS" spans the stage in large green neon letters in a font referencing the hotel sign. Four neatly furnished rooms in 60s conservative aesthetic comprise the Kennedy hotel suite that rotates on a raised platform - two bedrooms, an ensuite bathroom and sitting room. Other dynamic scenic changes occur including a sensuous moonscape scene and a banquet setting for Jack's address to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. A perceived accuracy in the details of Mattie Ullrich's contemporary 60s costumes create an unmistakable portrait of the Kennedys and the time.

Our first encounter with the first couple is unsettlingly voyeuristic as we look in as witnesses to a personal side of public life. Jack is lying in a bathtub while Jackie is in the adjacent bedroom. Looking out from the hotel room window, the audience is drawn into Jackie's portrait of introspection. Her opening aria, “Midnight Is the Loneliest Hour" depicts the pitiable melancholy that pervades her music and achingly gives the opera its emotional heart. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack immortalises her in a profoundly sensitive and poised performance with her lusciously dark and powerful mezzo-soprano. In Part One's final stages, Mack sings the near tear-jerker, "You Shiver". Limp on the floor beside the bed on which her husband is flaked out, she heart-wrenchingly sings with a devastatingly penetrating vibrato of the masks they wear and of her love for him despite his infidelities.

Katharine Goeldner, Daniela Mack and Talise Carrico
Then in Part Two's "I Have A Rendezvous", searching for an answer as to whether her husband will love her for the rest of his life as she is dresses for the morning's presidential speech, Mack sings in a duet facing her own older self as Jackie Onassis, who mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner portrays with richly compelling class.

Every bit looking the presidential part as Jack, baritone Matthew Worth brings appropriate firm, resonant and charismatic vocal style if at times a little lacking authoritative projection. Jack is a man our equal, as much susceptible to self-doubt, vulnerability and subconscious pain as any of us. While Jack lazes in the bathtub, Jackie enters to check on him and assists in relieving his chronic back pain with an injection of morphine. She, too, takes a hit. This introductory scene virtually reduces them to lost dependant drug users after which they plunge into a series of zany dreams that trace episodes of their life.

Firstly, Jack's institutionalised sister Rosemary (Cree Carrico), twirls out from the shower dressed for a dance she demands he take her to. Then, Rosemary takes him to the moon  where his first flirtatious meeting with Jackie is played out. An encounter with Russian premier Nikita Krushchev (Casey Finnigan) follows in a battle of superpower oneupmanship and finally, back in the bathroom, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (Daniel Okulitch) and his cronies invade his bath time with loads of lewdness as Texan cowboys.

Daniel Okulitch and his cronies
Talise Trevigne and Sean Panikkar are a vocally enigmatic and gloriously haunting force as Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone and as Rosemary, Cree Carrico agitatedly twirls and darts with as much amusing vocal shrill as she does about the bathroom. The deeply smokey-voiced Daniel Okulitch puts in grand performance as the lascivious and mocking LBJ, Casey Finnigan is a threatening pushy heavyweight as Krushchev and Brian Wallin is the shinily-voiced, clean-cut and excitable morning reporter.

The well-chosen cast is supported with a splendid strata of sound from the large chorus and the Texan Boys Choir but their presence never overwhelms the stage.

Right from the beginning, as the brief orchestral introduction reveals a mysterious serenity that swells to unnerving gloom, the music spins its effect. As the work unfolds, Little employs engaging diversity in style and orchestration, often giving the solo instrument sympathetic control. On opening night, the score was rendered with a refined ease by conductor Steven Osgood and the large Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

When the opera is presented by Opéra Montréal I want to be there again and, if not, I have no doubt JFK has the ability to reach globally, just as the shock of the president's assassination did.

Production Photographs: Marty Sohl (top) and Karen Almond 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Well-balanced drama and spectacularity on Sydney Harbour in Handa and Opera Australia's Turandot

Dan Potra's set design for Handa and Opera Australia's Turandot
Now in its fifth year, it was not a case of if, but how soon Puccini's last opera, Turandot, would dazzle Sydney Harbour as part of Handa and Opera Australia's non-perennial colonisation of a prominent position on its shores, a site on which acknowledgement is made each evening to the traditional indigenous inhabitants of the land. Here, with its urban harbour setting of almost unparalleled beauty, Sydney elevates opera to major-international-event status with its mega-build construction for an unforgettable entertainment experience while conjuring the theatre of opera as a unique civic spectacular (one its southern sister can never steal).

I attended the tail end of this month-long season of nightly performances that ring out to propel the art and awe of opera for which it takes regular opera-goers and purists, I presume, a leap of adjustment to acoustic limitations and obligatory spectacle. After last year's brazenly spectacular Aida, this year's Turandot moodily impresses with overall taste.

The experience starts with site designer Adrienn Lloyd's well-grafted layout with the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the background. Entering the site through a Chinese inspired gateway, an imposing seven-tiered pagoda of space-capsule-like appearances protected by thorny talons seems to float above a large cloud-like sculptured dragon's head. As the stage comes into view, the perspective widens to reveal set designer Dan Potra's raked stage incorporating a sliced cutout put to effective use, and on which it supports the pagoda to the right, then rises to a rear wall that connects the dragon's head to the left.

It's impressive, made more so throughout the performance by lighting designer Scott Zielinski's rich palette of lighting moods which capture the intimate and grand together with video designer Leigh Sachwitz and flora&faunavisions' visually poetic projections across the wall and tower. Costumes (also by Dan Potra), like the set, suggest a mixed Chinese aesthetic without pinpointing an exact period, altogether feeling dynamically ancient, near and beyond.

Arnold Rawls (Calaf), David Lewis (Emperor) and Daria Masiero (Turandot)
As the first notes emanate, a crane swings the Mandarin (Gennadi Dubinsky) into eye-popping proximity to the audience. The Emperor (David Lewis), too, is swung into view high above the stage on an oversized chunky couch/throne. That looked just a little too weird. Later, the dragon breathes fire as Prince Calaf (Arnold Rawls) pushes on it to announce his intentions to solve three riddles to win the right to wed Princess Turandot (Daria Masiero). And the icy princess makes her entrance high up in the pagoda, a vertical section of which a drawbridge-like section descends while supporting her as she puts each riddle to Calaf. Then, soon after Act 3 commences post interval, Rawls sings a moving account of "Nessun dorma" accompanied by wowing fireworks. No one was going to sleep through this showstopper.

But it all served the tale of the vengeful Princess Turandot well. In all, director and choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng makes adept use of the broad stage with well-balanced dramatic propulsion and spectacularity, without having the principal characters swamped by the chorus of commoners, who were generally relegated to the background. Executioners are aplenty while nine imperial guards seemed too few but their vigorous dance thrilled. Turandot's handmaids, numbering as many, in contrast danced with gracefully sweeping movement and precision to assist the drama.

One of the unfortunate sides of the outdoor staging is the unseen might and fine musicianship of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra beneath the stage under the leadership of Brian Castles-Onion. But Puccini's score (and the completed Act 3 by Franco Alfano after Puccini's death) is given thoughtful shape and energetic drive by Castles-Onion, who conducts with five years of experience below deck. Sound distortion can be attributed to electronic amplification which took some getting used to and it was often the lightly orchestrated and vocally gentle passages that worked more successfully. Serving the music and voice will always remain the biggest challenge for the future in engineering the finest auditory results.

As Princess Turandot, Daria Masiero (alternating in the role with Dragana Radakovic) spends most of her stage time holding onto dear life high in her impenetrable-looking pagoda but she commands the harbour with her magnificently dark and powerful soprano. In a glittering gown of ice-blue, Masiero plants statuesque steely imperiousness, then melts into love's embrace even though the two lead characters in this retelling of an ancient Persian tale lack depth.

Arnold Rawls as Calaf and Conal Coad as Timur
Arnold Rawls (alternating with Riccardo Massi) opens his performance with heroism and strength as Calaf, qualities that will melt the princess's heart, singing with robustness and determination despite a slightly raw edge occasionally filtering through. But how Rawls nailed an unforgettable "Nessun dorma" and powered the top range to finish with jaw-dropping length on the "ce" in "vincera". From this point on Rawls maintained vocal splendour and basked in passionate urgency as he eventually takes the princess with a long kiss.

As the pigtailed slave girl Liu, Eva Kong (alternating with Hyeseoung Kwon) makes her every bit a proletariat fighter and unswervingly brave in the face of torture as she protects the prince she has long secretly loved. Kong's consistently nuanced performance was matched by the beauty of her sweet and tender soprano, stealing the night and, deservedly, the audience's heart. Kong's shared moment with Masiero, as Turandot asks what gives her Liu strength, is one of the few poignantly intimate scenes and the two carry it off superbly until Liu's horrific death.

John Longmuir, Benjamin Rasheed and Luke Gabbedy blended better as a trio as the restless dancing, somewhat disenchanted ministers Pong, Pang and Ping, Conal Coad convincingly portrays the prince's blind and beaten old father, Timur, while Gennadi Dubinsky and David Lewis add vocal authority as the Mandarin and Emperor respectively.

But rarely being able to see the faces of the distant Opera Australia Chorus left a divide between them and their strongly voiced delivery. I wanted their mass to swell towards the fore-stage and see the origin of their rousing sound.

The spectacle is over for another year but the event's successful blend of music, drama, entertainment and creative splendour will certainly keep audiences coming back and see new arrivals eager to experience it all. It can only spell a win-win combination.

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Friday, April 8, 2016

A refreshingly edgy lift to an old work comes wonderfully sung at Brisbane Baroque's Agrippina

It's not difficult to believe that Agrippina is considered to be Georg Frideric Handel's first operatic masterpiece but, surprisingly, it's the first time this deliciously rambunctious work has been fully staged in Australia. Premiering in Venice in 1709, Agrippina is also a lusciously multi-faceted work that binds piquant melodrama with dark intrigues, satirical comedy and tonnes of sexual energy. And putting aside distant historical inaccuracies, this mini-series-like three-act 'opera seria' marvellously points the index finger at the corruptive abuse of power and its offspring of debauchery.

Cast of soloists in Brisbane Baroque's Agrippina
Brisbane Baroque present the work as the centrepiece of its second festival year, once again, in association with Göttingen International Opera Festival. Riding on the runaway success of last year's Helpmann Award-winning Faramondo, this year's offering is an outstanding contribution to modern operatic ideals on a scale that befits its drama and suited nicely to the 600-plus capacity of the Conservatorium Theatre.

And what a wonderfully sung treatment and refreshingly edgy lift an old work gets from director Laurence Dale, who milks Vincenzo Grimani's libretto for every conceivable vulgarity and shamelessly presents it without tarnishing the narrative. Dale's effervescent direction is honoured by an impressive international cast of soloists who paint their characters with fabulously nuanced tricks, many of whom are reprising their roles from the 2014 Göttingen production premiere.

Ulrike Schneider as Agrippina
Ulrike Schneider drip-feeds gracious charms and poisonous heart as the scheming megalomanic dominatrix, Agrippina. Full of darkened mezzo-soprano richness, Schneider gives poise and grandeur to the role as the manipulative matriarch while luring her audience (via bracketed surtitled text) into her crazed rationalising delusions. Only a little more power to the voice and shaping of the upper register, which she attained firmly in the third act, might've pushed her performance to even greater dramatic height, but the swift mental shifts of character resonated loud and clear.

Russell Harcourt is a standout as the entertainingly lewd and degenerate Nerone, who he renders as a pitiable, psychologically scarred and clueless creature, beaten into servility by his mother to desire the throne and feasting on the pleasures of sex. Harcourt sounded completely at ease at every vocal corner as he projected a succulently sonorous and throbbing countertenor (one of three on magnificent show) to match the libidinous, later dildo-flapping desperado.

Hobbling, haggard and pasty, bass João Fernandes brings considered wisdom to a helplessly lecherous Claudio. Doing so with his irresistibly hypnotic and sullen-toned bass instrument coming garnished with the finest vibrato, Fernandes leaves no doubt that his Claudio has emerged anew from near death in a tempest at sea.

Rewarded with the power to rule but single-minded in his love for Poppea, the opera's only shining light of moral strength is Claudio's saviour from death, Ottone, to whom Carlo Vistoli imbues with fortified simple-heartedness and a vocally charismatic and wholesome countertenor. Vistoli's Ottone shares his feelings freely and tenderly with Keri Fuge's savvy and seductive Poppea, her bright soprano glistening more and more as the plot progressed. Together, Vistoli and Fuge keep love burning in sight of the debauchery, climaxing in Act III's "Pur ch'io ti stringa al sen" (Ottone) followed by Bel piacere e godere fido amor" (Poppea), to which the pair brought great spellbinding pathos.

Ulrike Schneider and Russell Harcourt
Countertenor Owen Willetts and baritone Ross Ramgobin are always entertaining and vocally robust as the comic chalk-and-cheese duo, Naciso and Pallante, Rambogin generously and amusingly sharing in hand his significant trousered assets. Baritone Ronaldo Steiner adequately fills out the smaller role of Claudio's servant Lesbo.

Tom Schenk's smart, sharp and shimmering set designs, Robby Duiveman's quirky back-to-baroque futuristic costumes and Richard Stuart's dramatically directed lighting add immense theatrical might. Two manoeuvrable boxed screens of scrim and mirror, and a single golden Doric column, create a variety of spatial forms and passages. A single roman chair is its centrepiece as the seat of power on which Dale cleverly stains with episodes of immoral and odious behaviour.

And below all this onstage salaciousness, a rich assortment of music beats, hums and blooms with eloquence and majesty. On period instruments, the Orchestra of the Antipodes were in superlative and vivacious form. Conducting with signature exuberance, Erin Helyard  shapes the music like you're watching and hearing it being created fresh on the spot for the first time as he builds orchestral excitement and harvests the unique sounds of the individual instruments. All the while, a near-at-hand, commanding sensitivity pervaded throughout as Helyard crafted to perfection the orchestral and vocal interplay.

In another feather in the cap for Brisbane Baroque, Agrippina has landed in Australia with sparkling promise that the future is indeed bright for the staging of under-performed or rare works which, newly realised, can beguile the mind and senses.

Conservatorium Theatre
Griffith University
Until 16th April.

Production photographs: Darren Thomas

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Missing ingredients but golden music at CitiOpera's Ariadne auf Naxos

Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera within an opera in which an amalgam of indecorous "commedia dell'arte" characters and exponents of serious opera vie for the theatrical limelight at the home of the richest man in Vienna, boils down to the sticky behind-the-scenes travails of artistic ideals and the realities it collides with. With dinner running behind schedule, the rich benefactor demands that the evening's two divertissements are to be combined in order to meet the scheduled nine o'clock fireworks. A last-minute creative flush from a roomful of personalities needs to happen fast.

Pumping up flexibility within operative constraints gives long-term life for any performing company. Melbourne's small independent team at CitiOpera step up to the task bravely, this time steering away from their usual offering of Italian opera towards the more iron-like qualities of German repertoire.

Henry Choo as Bacchus and Wendy Grose as Ariadne
The results come mixed in a production that director Stella Axarlis brings to the stage with a bright and legible interpretation. Erika Kimpton-Etter's effective set design charms with its projections of a palatial salon in the Prologue and the ruins of a Greek temple on a sky-high outcrop in the Opera. Enhanced by Silvia Scodellaro's tastefully considered costumes (I can't say the same for the heavy blonde wigs worn by the nymphs) and complemented by Daniel Jow's evocative lighting shifts, the creative juices mix pleasingly.

What is missing, however, with every member of the large cast having a clear role to play from the wig maker to the prima donna, is the outpouring of a more relaxed and risqué approach to ignite the grand passions and indelicate comedy in the work.

The work's spoken German dialogue comes across flat and the Prologue scene in which idealogical tensions erupt between the Composer and Zerbinetta, is under-baked as the tension fizzles out all-too-quickly into sweet amorous embraces. Post-interval, the Opera is graciously handled while Harlequin and his well-timed boys punctured the seriousness entertainingly. Their lead Zerbinetta, however, isn't able to outperform their troupe.

On opening night, vocal inconsistencies added a few more fissures but the music was served beautifully by several key performers. Kristen Leich is airtight in the role of the Composer, portraying the frazzled artist with smooth, pure-toned and cleanly phrased vocal adeptness.

As the Prologue's prima donna, Wendy Grose stomps with weighty urgency, then makes a compelling metamorphosis as Ariadne in a role that demands the lot. From debilitating anguish after her abandonment by Theseus to rejuvenated sensualness in union with Bacchus, Grose produces a vocally rich and shapely sound, showing both forthright robustness and a lightness that melts the senses as she digs deep into the emotional journey.

Kristen Leich as the Composer
As Bacchus, Henry Choo makes an impressive side balcony entrance in what becomes the evening's most vocally assured performance, projecting with keenly-balanced and  resonantly meaty strength to give every phrase conviction.

Raphael Wong brings a calm, collected and polished sensibility to the Music Master. Michael Lampard stands out amongst his troupe as Harlequin with a fireside-warm baritone alongside Daniel Sinfield's sparky Brighella. Carolina Biasoli (Nalad), Karen Van Spall (Dryad) and Genevieve Dickson (Echo) found the perfect measure of delicious vocal blending after a tentative introduction but looked uncertain and forgotten during Ariadne's lengthy passages.

Disappointingly, Zerbinetta, the zesty and lascivious burlesque leading lady and the opera's second diva who is given the work's unforgettably sparkling coloratura, gets a lukewarm portrayal from a vocally challenged Tamzyn Alexander. As Alexander could show, certainly the notes were achievable and an attractive crystalline tone is present but the rigorous musical line came undone.

Above all, the stars of the night (and continuing CitiOpera's run of thoroughly engaging music-making) are the 20-strong members of the orchestra who played with noticeable finesse, and conductor David Kram who sculptured a music that carries the darting emotive shifts with consummate passion.

What lies in the wings remains a mystery but I look forward to CitiOpera's next courageous move.

Production Photos: CitiOpera

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ideas and emoticons bring Rameau's Pygmalion to riotous life from Lyric Opera of Melbourne

In an ideas-rich and entertaining start to the year, Lyric Opera of Melbourne brings to riotous life Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1748 one-act relic of Baroque musical craftsmanship, Pygmalion. And yes, Pygmalion's lineage stretches back well beyond George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play which subsequently inspired the 1956 musical and the 1964 film, My Fair Lady.

Patrick MacDevitt as Pygmaliom (centre) with ensemble
In fact, Rameau and his librettist Ballot de Sovot's "acte de ballet" is based on a mythical story from Ovid's Metamorphoses concerning the sculptor Pygmalion (Patrick MacDevitt) who falls in love with his own statue. In this case we see it as a partly covered figure slumped in a bathtub in the vein of Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Marat" (1793), propped up centre-stage to add a somewhat macabre tension in Pygmalion's studio while Cephise (Kimberly Coleman), the woman he has turned his back on, is inflamed with jealousy and disdain for his barbarous love. For underneath the covers, this statue invites surprise. Ovid's female statue and Rameau's role for soprano is here enlivened by the nimble and incisive countertenor voice of Josh Tomlinson. It's a man!

L'Amour (Sabrina Surace) turns up high on a mountain of blazing orange fabric in praise of Pygmalion's artistry. Once defrocked, her amiable graces, an ensemble of cross-pollinated costumed fashionistas parading in runway mode, are unleashed to complete the beatification process. Beauty never sounded so deep yet appears so shallow and the power of Love so fantastical yet so fragile. When transfigured, the statue declares, "My first desire is to please you", but in a modern, irreverent and clever twist, Pygmalion himself later appears rejected by his statue who walks away from him. Nothing, however, can quell the celebration of Love's power, as fleeting as it can be.

Josh Tomlinson as the Statue
The bulk of the vocal music falls upon Pygmalion and MacDevitt responds with a courageous and energetic performance. Nerves may have overtaken the voice on this preview night but MacDevitt's warm and attractive tenor impresses solidly in the middle range. I would've liked, however, to hear greater emotive shaping with greater attention to breathing and more confident, fluid ornamentation to really showcase Rameau's extraordinary writing.

Kimberly Coleman's dark creamy and focused soprano brings dramatic weight to Cephise and Sabrina Surace is brightly animated in voice as L'Armour and gives her character dazzling commoner-like status. Overall, the vocal standard though is yet to match Lyric Opera of Melbourne's 2014 successes in Copland's The Tender Land and Massenet's Werther.

A sense of beating, heightened theatricality persists throughout the 50-minute work in which director James Cutler gives the principal characters range and impact and amongst which the balletic thread is prominent. Choreographer Georgia Taylor fuses the drama with narrative thrust courtesy of her ensemble of six talented dancers, even though at times it feels like the self-absorbed, impromptu bodywork begins to suffocate the music as the dancers gasp, grunt and ooh-ah on their merry way in their wildly eclectic style.

Kimberly Coleman as Cephise
And how you wanted to bathe in Rameau's palette! Behind a black scrim curtain, at the theatre's 'sanctuary' end, 14 musicians on period instruments (in a first for Lyric Opera of Melbourne) warmed under the embracing command of artistic director Pat Miller. Seated at one of two harpsichords, the other manoeuvred stunningly into place from the stage's opposite end during the overture, Miller drew fine expression from his musicians on preview night, searching for perhaps a little more airiness in the lighter passages but completely in control of the rhythmically vibrant sections, none more so than at the score's jubilant finale.

Designer Rob Sowinski has put his theatrical wizardry to effective use with simplistic spatial enhancement. The usual raked standard seating for Chapel off Chapel's main church theatre is replaced by two long rows of seating either side of the side wall (much like a the choir of a cathedral) to form a voluminous performance space accommodating minimal roll-on, roll-off props. Lucy Wilkins's costumes delight with their flourishes of fractured stylistic influences and low ambient lighting holds the picture while the characters and their costumes pulse under radiant light.

And how could you not appreciate and smile with the emoticon surtitles interspersed with the text? I was waiting to see if any of the soloists were sneaking a peak for their dramatic cues, but there's so much happening on the stage that it could've gone unnoticed. That was another first for a company bent on having fun with opera.

Let this brief night's entertainment follow with dinner and drinks. A good rant about the performance will likely go with it.

Production photographs: Kris Washusen