Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A thrilling and feverish Roméo et Juliette at Opera Hong Kong

Since 2006, Opera Hong Kong have collaborated with Le French May Arts Festival, one of Asia's largest and most popular arts events, to produce fully staged works for local audiences. For this year's festival, it's the second time Charles-François Gounod's Roméo et Juliette has been presented (the first being in 2007). In this new production, acclaimed French director and designer Arnaud Bernard has delivered an altogether beautifully tender, feverish and thoughtfully delineated piece of thrilling operatic theatre.

Act IV's wedding scene in which Juliette is forced in marriage to Paris
In Gounod's 1867 version of Shakespeare's story of doomed love, a series of duets and pensive arias clearly bring the focus on the lovers but the turbulent background of two families long at odds with each other is spliced with swathes of tension.

Bernard's choices bring fervency and momentum to this five-act work and allows Gounod's music to appear both completely integrated with the onstage events and its descriptive potential fully realised. Serving the music, conductor Benjamin Pionnier captured the dramatic shifts splendidly with well-honed knowhow. The Fujian Symphony Orchestra played with exacting confidence and pit and stage remained respectful friends throughout the opera's five acts.

Bernard never holds back on the tensions between the opposing Capulets and Montagues. Even before the overture gets underway, the suspense of chase and violence is mounted with exhilarating energy. Combat, whether with swords, knives or open-hand is choreographed with incredible power by Pavel Jancik, and bloodied clothes and faces of the gang-like mass are a constant reminder of consequences past and present.

The entire concept, in fact, is created by Bernard's remarkable jack-of-all-trades adeptness as set, costume and lighting designer. This Roméo et Juliette has a sense of being set in a darkened monumental corner of a modern urban ghetto in which a striking visual clash of time adds to the brooding tension. Hoodies, jeans and military-styled streetwear give contemporary unpretentious directness and the washed-out palette of blacks, whites and greys never confuses who belongs where.

 Vannina Santoni as Juliette and Sébastien Guèze as Roméo
Dramatically variable lighting bathes and cuts a series of vertical grey rendered walls looming up into the fly, the only embellishment a large pedimented Renaissance window. The configuration alters for each act and multiple access points facilitate quick and easy access for the more than 80 cast and chorus members. Bernard knows the ins and outs of crowd movement and is blessed by an exceptional cast who make the leaps, rolls and tumbles about the stage with effortless realism.

The events of each act are precisely timed, sharpening the realism of the impending tragedy, from Act I's "Verona, Oct 4, 21:34" to Act V's "Capulet Tomb, November 16, 3:43". In Act IV's "Juliette's Bedroom, November 15, 6:47" the stage is set aglow with a spread of candlelight and, as if sealing fate, the nuptial bed resembles the plinth of a tomb.

And how the two lovers are portrayed with poignant youthful impetuousness and conviction! As Roméo and Juliette, Sébastien Guèze and Vannina Santoni take love along an increasingly mature and expressive journey. The pairing is striking, their passion burning and their voices blend with effortless liquidity. Early, when Roméo shares a beer with Juliette it's an unexpected comical yet appropriately casual moment. They continue to connect with the audience refreshingly.

Juliette is no demure shrinking violet in the grasp of Santoni. At first mildly tomboyish, Juliette is as much a part of her Capulet gang and possesses as much fighting spirit as any of them. Watching her settle in love with yearning womanly passion brought home the veracity of her immediate and uncensored attraction for Roméo. Santoni's pure and radiant soprano increasingly bloomed with affecting strength as if to trace her transition. There is great amplitude in the voice, dynamic ease across register shifts and careful jaunts across purring ornamented lines, all the while carrying the emotional integrity of the text. Despite occasional untimely aspirations, here was an unblemished performance.

Sébastien Guèze as Roméo
As Roméo, Guèze similarly grows up on stage in the six weeks the drama is played out. As an almost naive adolescent partaking in errant brawling, Guèze's Roméo seems loosely guided by his peers. After meeting his new-found love, Guèze gradually transforms with resolved manliness, duly characterised by a resonating and richly virile tenor. In the middle and lower voice Guèze's power and shape shine marvellously. The higher range of voice thins out in reaching the top notes but Guèze nonetheless delivers charismatic flexibility.

Guillaume Andrieux, with his perfectly suited rich and volatile baritone, is alight as a hot-headed alpha-male Mercutio. As Juliette's father, Guy Bonfiglio held authority with his robust stony lower bass despite some loss of projection in the upper reaches. Gong Dong Jian shows understated compassion and is impressive in bass sturdiness as Frère Laurent. As Tybalt, Haô Ting displays pent-up aggression combined with agility in body and voice. Other supporting cast give meaty performances with Dominique Chan as a wholesome-voiced Gertrude, Samantha Chong as a chipper Stephano, Sammy Chien as Paris and Apollo Wong as the blustery-voiced and staunch duke. And the Opera Hong Kong Chorus climbed to a new level of refinement with strong and unified support.

Here, in one of the far-from-operatic centres of the world, this Roméo and Juliette is testament to the world-class calibre of performance and staging that Opera Hong Kong offers.

Production Photos: Opera Hong Kong

Sunday, May 15, 2016

State Opera of South Australia's world premiere of Cloudstreet soars with understated immensity

It was a hard life of good and bad luck at the rundown house at number 1 Cloud Street, Perth. It was here that two battling families with different backgrounds and ideals serendipitously share an abandoned home where they build their own story of survival and spirit. This story of the Pickles and the Lambs is a journey through the struggles that leave scars on the psyche, our innate nature to try mend relationships and the little joys that catapult us to the stars.

Based on Australian author Tim Winton's novel of the same name, State Opera South Australia's bold and commanding new world premiere production of Cloudstreeet, by composer George Palmer, is a soul-tingling nebulous journey powered by truckloads of feeling.

Nicholas Jones as Quick Lamb and Nicholas Cannon as Fish Lamb
After winning the 1992 Booker Prize, Winton's Cloudstreet has been successfully adapted as a play and a mini-series. Now, Palmer's idea to bring it to the operatic stage seems a natural fit despite the imagined challenges. With guidance and support from director Gale Edwards and Artistic Director of State Opera of South Australia Timothy Sexton's backing, the work's five-year development has resulted in a remarkable piece of engaging contemporary operatic theatre. Set between the 1940s and 1960s, the sprawling story covering around 20 years is condensed into 60 bite-sized scenes across two acts.

Edwards's directorial wand works a treat in moving the drama forward, finding just the right measure of detail and pace to give Cloudstreet an understated immensity. Sometimes it feels that just when it seems to open out and breath, the next scene snaps at the fore, and the connection of the unsettled spirits that reside in the home feels mostly fragile against the more intensely felt 'watery' realm that Fish Lamb is drawn to, but the storytelling is so vividly conveyed by its sensational acting and singing that the work leaves a wondrous taste in its wake.

Palmer's music shows a lyricism and poetically tonal underlay for his own libretto that is lifted from much of Winton's own writing. In this, Palmer's first opera, the music serves the text with open arms, which is possibly why almost no exposed orchestral passages exist. But Palmer's use of robustly threaded solo pieces and striking recitative work marvellously to enliven temperaments while the Aussie accents, the lingo and all the expletives are given an appropriate home in the music, even to the lingual bowels of "I need a pooh".

Antoinette Halloran as Oriel Lamb and Nicholas Cannon as Fish Lamb
On opening night, Timothy Sexton conducted the 30-something-member quality-sounding Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with a gentle unobtrusiveness that, on most accounts, handed the dramatic rendering to the singers.

For the stage, the creative team have skilfully turned Cloudstreet into a meaningful theatrical work with a powerfully raw, mystical and evocative staging that expresses the suggested era at the same time as giving it, much like the story itself, immense timelessness.

Encompassing the stage to provide an open, workable central area and revolve, Victoria Lamb's set design of splintered weather-boarding perfectly captures a sense of impoverishment. Props come in and out and video designer Craig Williams's various projections deftly conjure diverse spatial settings. Nigel Levings's graphic lighting design adds its own gently descriptive angle, incorporating a sky-full of descending light bulbs as well as red when lighting the Pickles and blue for the Lambs - as does Ailsa Paterson's thoughtfully considered period costumes that also tastefully follow this visually coded differentiation.

After a picnicking tragedy by the Margaret River in which everyone's favourite, Fish Lamb, almost drowns, the story, as many layers as it has, revolves around the effects of Fish's subsequent mental impairment on himself and the rippling effect on his relationships.

Nicholas Jones, his luminescent tenor full of vibrancy and power, portrays Fish with astounding pathos and invincibility, painfully yet understandingly bringing us ever closer to his own final walk to his watery Valhalla. Warm and syrupy baritone Nicholas Cannon is equally formidable as his sympathetic brother Quick. Together, their indestructible brotherly tenderness is a compelling view from a deeply personal perspective. In fact, in a dramatic achievement that renders every principal character with depth, the audience is able to see their story through their own spirited and sensitive eyes.

Barry Ryan as Sam Pickles and Joanna McWaters as Dolly Pickles
Pelham Andrews's warm, salt-of-the-earth baritone patiently butters home life as the fatherly stalwart, Lester Lamb. Gleaming  soprano Antoinette Halloran paints a melancholic picture as his wife Oriel, never recovering from her favourite boy's near death from drowning, a death she saves him from but for which his inability to recognise her torments her forever.

Desiree Frahn is a performing standout with what can only be a step into greater things as Rose Pickles, her richly flexuous and emotively tinted soprano affectingly defining her progression from pigtailed bookish young girl living a stolen childhood to resolute loving young mother.

A disturbing aura surrounds lusciously-voiced soprano Joanna McWaters's fulsome portrayal of Rose's vivacious and openly lascivious mother, Dolly Pickles. As her gambling and hopelessly patient husband Sam Pickles, expressive and gravelly-voiced baritone Barry Ryan, who portrayed Scully in The Riders - another Tim Winton novel-to-opera world premiere work successfully brought to the stage by Victorian Opera - gives a solid, grounded account.

Other memorably strong performances come from ardently-voiced bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman as Rose's dabble with pretentious boyfriend Toby and steaming baritone Don Bemrose as 'magic man' Bob Crab. They are amongst a fine ensemble of Lamb and Pickles siblings who effortlessly make believe their transition believable from childhood to adulthood.

Tears of joy or sorrow will be shed throughout the seven performances of this world premiere season of Cloudstreet through to 21st May. Hopefully, without loss of momentum, the work will find its way onto stages further afield, to be packaged not as uniquely Australian but, as the opera's advertising by-line it says, "A journey of the human spirit". Indeed it is!

Production photographs: Accent Photography