Tuesday, July 26, 2016

McVicar's richly characterised Così fan tutte compensates for the musical imperfections in Sydney

Young lovers beware and take note. In Così fan tutte, the last of three operas librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte penned for Mozart in 1790, the philosopher Don Alfonso tells you men, from experience, that "Women are all the same", but that a greater love can forgive the infidelities of fickle women. Chivalrously, he blames the mistakes of men. On the other side of the fence, Despina the housemaid tells you women, "Foresee the misfortune so common to those who trust in men". Now one of the most performed operas worldwide, it's arguably the greatest opera buffa with a bite at sexual politics and a not too shabby advertisement for sexual revolution.

Andrew Jones, Nicole Car, Anna Dowsley and David Portillo
Following his magnificently dark Don Giovanni and tenderly dappled The Marriage of Figaro, director David McVicar's Così fan tutte unfolds with genuinely rich characterisation and subtle comic turns in another scenically beautiful production for Opera Australia. In its English translation (sung in Italian), Da Ponte's innuendo-soaked libretto reveals more than is acted on but the actions are nonetheless unforced, the pace is effectively engaging and the many scene changes morph splendidly over its two acts - that was until Act II when a mid-stage sliding wall panel wouldn't budge and the curtain came down with a pause in proceedings, a behind the scenes fix and an apology. In the hundreds of operas I've attended this was a first and the pause initially seemed unnecessary. But, when the intended fully exposed garden terrace scene appeared in deep blue evening light, it revealed the most evocative of set and costume designer Moritz Junge's enchanting and time-worn neoclassical walled spaces and David Finn's sharp summery lighting. All the while, McVicar's lively direction makes inroads into the entire stage area.

Maintaining the original location in Naples, McVicar cleverly transplants the action from the 18th to the early 20th century when a calm existed before the storm of World War I. Here, we're immersed in a setting for love and romance and a battle of the sexes at hand in an air of southern Italian unpretentiousness.

It wasn't all as perfect as could be, with an unpolished air seeping into the musical and vocal parts. As much as the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra played with overall finesse, starting with a tightly gushing overture, conductor Jonathan Darlington overly shook the tempi in the pit and unsettled the stage causing numerous erroneous vocal starts. On this night, the unending beauty of Mozart's score appeared disappointingly scattered.

Nicole Car, Taryn Fiebig and Anna Dowsley
With fractures not limited to the pit, and despite the score being beautifully sung, it was not consistently and rivetingly so with the many glorious vocal ensembles lacking binding strength. Still, the soloists rewarded with many radiant arias that pierced through the work with magnetic appeal. Act I's concluding sextet was however splendidly handled and the lively direction captured the hearts and intentions of the two sisters's resistance to the unabated advances of the two 'foreign' men.

As the cautious, protective and more compliant Fiordiligi, Nicole Car melts into the role with ease while measuring the vocal demands with care. Car's voice is gleaming, pliant and deliciously colourful, and she delivers one of the most heartfelt arias of the night. Preceded by an emotionally sympathetic recitative pensively asking the forgiveness of a loving heart, Car turns Act II, Scene II's "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona" into silk and gold with a captivating pianissimo that gives way to an intoxicating and despairing powerful sound.

Endearing, treacle-rich mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley steals many a moment with her cracker understated comic charm and nervous energy as Dorabella, with touches of comic inspiration from the great Carol Burnett. With Car, a convincing sisterly pairing emerged while their chalk-and-cheese differences created exciting curiosity concerning both their predicament and actions.

Taryn Fiebig scuttles about with a spot of rough-edged lewdness and cheeky Italian gesturing as Despina and cranks up the hilarity with her disguise as both doctor and notary. There's some forgetting to project at the voice's lower range but Fiebig displays luscious characterful vocals elsewhere in her role of power and in her advice to the two love-innocent sisters.

Act II, Scene II of Opera Australia's Così fan tutte
As a quick-tempered Ferrando, David Portillo fills the role amply after fellow American tenor, Charles Castronovo, one of today's most charismatic artists, withdrew. Portillo's shapely, bright, floating and cleanly enunciated tenor set sail from the start, giving Act I, Scene II's concluding "Un'aura amorosa", the most poignantly and technically superior aria to that point, warmly confident in voice and in his fiancée's faithfulness.

Andrew Jones lavishes heaps of bravado on Guglielmo with an in-form roaring-lion baritone to match the long golden mane of hair he wears as the disguised Turk, Wallachian or wherever the exotic pair really hail from. Together with Portillo, the camaraderie, the boys-will-be-boys play and the crossings are knitted soundly together in performance.

Don Alfonso is in gentlemanly hands with Richard Anderson's dignified performance and softly persuasive cigar-box bass that seems wondrously lifted off the walls of Act I's men's club. The soldiers and servants of the Opera Australia Chorus sing behind the scenes, pleasingly tuneful if somewhat muffled, in a sensibly directed move that focuses the entire drama on the principals.

Mozart and Da Ponte's opera never fails to draw you in with its subliminally inviting music and its infectious and provocative libretto. Opera Australia's newest production achieves much in McVicar's hands but a more concerted musical and vocal rendering would set it apart. Young lovers take note - there's much to take home and chew over in bed with this one.

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 13th August

Production photographs: Prudence Upton

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dark, thought-provoking and vocally superb, Bieito builds a monument to Halévy's La Juive in Munich

It was a musical and theatrical evening of the highest quality and one that brings all the finest forces together in a performance that you long to live though again. Wedded well-known singers Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna, on stage together, satisfied the fans but they were also joined by a superb cast of soloists in Bayerische Staatsoper's new production of Fromental Halévy's La Juive (1835), mounted in a seamless artistic monument by Spanish director Calixto Bieito. Sung in French and even without understanding the German surtitles, nothing felt lost in this thought provoking production.

Bayerische Staatsoper La Juive, Act III
If you've never heard of it you're far from alone. Not knowing anything about what the work could achieve, it was an extraordinary find to see a rarely performed opera by an equally rarely performed composer. Halévy's grand orchestral score, the lush vocal work and Bieito's deceivingly dark and simple formula for an unsettling story with unequivocal relevance today, make this work a sure contender for a more prominent place on the opera stage.

Eugène Scribe's libretto concerns the story of forbidden love between the Jewish woman Rachel (Aleksandra Kurzak) and the Christian man Léopold (John Osborn), one that, if discovered will result in death for her and excommunication for him. When discovered, it all unravels with enormous tragic results. At first, Rachel believes Léopold is a Jew, unaware that he has disguised himself and married to Princess Eudoxie (Vera-Lotte Böcker). Rachel is really the daughter of Cardinal Brogni, (Ain Anger), saved from a fire when she was a baby by the father that raised her, Éléazar, (Roberto Alagna), a subplot which helps to shed light on motivations of the protagonists.

Backed by his characteristic insightful eye, Bieito uses a combination of stylistic and naturalistic devices in his direction to achieve both subtlety and power as the narrative slowly drifts over an undercurrent of darkness. The entire staging highlights the oneness and differences in humanity, the instilled fear of the other as a threat, and of intolerances we have but can't see. In this case, it's a religious clash of belief but it could be any other prejudice that we live amongst.

Roberto Alagna 
Aleksandra Kurzak reaches into her character's heart and imbues Rachel with just enough forthrightness without extinguishing an underlying and intoxicating grace. Kurzak balances the taxing register shifts with beauty and her birdsong brightness at the top was gleaming. If there was anything to fault her performance, it appeared with an occasional chipped edge at the top, but Kurzak's enigmatic performance was always breathtaking in the role's demands.

As the courageous Éléazar, Roberto Alagna commanded the stage with both sympathetic determination and worrying defiance. In the opera's best known aria, Act III's "Rachel! Quand du seigneur", Alagna fleshed out an agonised man with all the vocal power and burnished appeal he displayed from the outset. An evenness in the voice shined through its entire range, a fine, toasty vibrato and beautiful lengthened notes oozed with an ease of phrasing that all made his character convincing. Even when the voice seemed to approach breaking point, Alagna shot through with aching emotional integrity.

John Osborn turned on a the star quality with his dynamic, attractive and resonant tenor and a committed performance style as Léopold. In the first encounter we have with him, Osborn climbs the wall in a sign he straddles both sides, indoctrinated as a Christian but, in disguise, a Jew in the eyes of Rachel. Both the chemistry he shares with Kurzak and the uneasiness of his disguise alongside Alagna is palpable. This same strength of shared, in-tune connection between the principals shone in both acting and vocal ensemble blending.

The gaping discrimination and authority of the Church was in perfect hands with Ain Anger as Cardinal Brogni. Hulking in physical presence and vocal force, Anger's strength rested in his portrayal of a near emotionless heart with a voice full of dark forbidding tones, almost uncoloured, even and richly resonant.

Aleksandra Kurzak and Tareq Nazmi
As Léopold's elegant eyeing wife Eudoxie, Vera-Lotte Böcker gave a mightily resplendent performance to a vocally rich role. Böcker's deep-centred crystalline soprano, lace like ornamentation and emotive shading excelled and she stood assured alongside Kurzak's Rachel as a wonderful mirroring counterpart. In the three duets they share, the harmonisation is impeccable even when singing without sight of each other. Two smaller roles were masterfully filled by the emotively alive and powerful voices of Johannes Kammler as the brutish Ruggiero and Tareq Nazmi as the blank Albert.

Halévy's music sits in the style of Donizetti and Verdi, more Italian than French, but this four-act work has its own unique qualities. The opening act begins with an organ solo that draws you into a sacred place and then collides with a huge orchestral outburst. It continues with a strong chorus component and is sung through with just one extended aria. The following two acts turn the cogs of interpersonal agendas to include numerous arias and duets accompanied by solo or paired instruments (like the dramatic duet between Rachel and Eudoxie with just cello and horn). The third act finishes with a brilliantly large assembly of heaving voices and high drama while the final act's structure seems to blend that of the first three into a more balanced brew that boils to the fatal outcome.

The chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper were a significant presence throughout, creating stunningly rich and undulating momentum, vocally sure but often cloudy in diction. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester excelled, emanating comforting confidence under the baton of conductor Bertrand de Billy, who brought a sumptuous and effectively paced reading to Halévy's score.

Originally set in Constance in the early 15th century (near the present day German-Swiss border) Bieito gives the work a non-specific location. Rebecca Ringst's single-concept set design is an impenetrable high monumental wall traversing the stage, appearing as much of concrete as it does of steel. It's pushed and pulled by the chorus of citizens on a rotate into various positions to divide the stage, symbolising the struggle between a community of religious differences. Despite being blanketed in depths of darkness, the performers never feel lost in Michael Bauer's Rembrandt-like lighting effects that allow the soloists to glow. In the charcoal and grey conservatively suited and dressed cast, Ingo Krügler's effective costumes camouflage differences in beliefs. Furthermore, wearing blindfolds, the citizens are led to act brutally and in a way that they're unable to see through their actions.

Tareq Nazmi, Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak
Like the music of its era, Halévy writes with plenty of moments that lead the audience to an applause. There wasn't a the lack of sensational singing, but suddenly here, the highly engaged Bayerische Staatsoper audience were first oddly silent, then hesitantly warm before liberating themselves completely. In the end, there was a huge ovation for the singers, the conductor and musicians and little doubt that they were astonished at the performance of this generally unfamiliar work. Halévy equally would be astonished to hear his La Juive sung so splendidly by the entire cast and realised with such poignancy and power.

Bayerische Staatsoper
Nationale Theater

Production photographs: Wilfried Hösl

Saturday, July 9, 2016

In Munich, a superbly integrated concept renews Turandot's possibilities

In Puccini's last grand operatic gesture, the ruthless Princess Turandot rules in China's legendary past and any prince who dares to wed her must answer three riddles correctly or lose their head. One prince, Calaf, achieves the impossible and despite Turandot's objections to honour the law, her heart is finally melted by a love she never saw coming.

Johan Botha (Calaf), Irina Lungu (Liù) and Goran Jurić (Timur)
Directors rarely interfere with Turandot's ancient Chinese setting but in Bayerische Staatsoper's current production which premiered in 2011, Spanish director Carlus Padrissa reimagines it in the year 2046. It's a futurist fantasy world when Europe is ruled by China after plunging into a debilitating deft-ridden financial crisis. Rather than dictate or confuse the story, it provides a stunning background to it, a concept that you're not required to make complete sense of. Perhaps responding to the ramifications of the Global Financial Crisis, Padrissa might never have imagined what now could precipitate the fragmentation of the European Union and the belief now that anything is possible in this world in flux.

Working with La Fura dels Baus (the Barcelona theatrical group who produced the opening ceremony for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics), the result is a bold and spectacular experience of performance art and art installation-like form and feels superbly integrated with Puccini's bombastic score.

Ice-hockey, ice-skating handmaids and an iceberg world that's melts away as Calaf answers each riddle pad the spectacle with references to this ice-hearted princess. Circus-like trapeze artists dangle, air-swim and unfurl banners, slender-framed steel structures recede into the distance to depict a congested megalopolis and at the epicentre of this world is Princess Turandot's centrifugal 'throne' which imbues her with the power of a sorceress.

Johan Botha (Calaf) and Nina Stemme (Turandot)
For this, Roland Olbeter's set design is a simple affair which maintains the expansive stage area to deal with the huge chorus and allow them to move in and out almost unnoticeably. What dazzles the eyes are Franc Aleu's kinetically stunning video projections, further enhanced by audience-issued 3D glasses, not only novel (the first time I've donned them for an opera) but effective. Chu Uroz's costume designs are a rich assortment of manga-like and print-media inspired text for the chorus of citizens which give them a sense of uniformed containment, while the ruling class are gowned in shimmering solid colour. In black with metal ornament, Turandot appears both aggressive and in mourning.

Even without a clear understanding of the text's nuance, this Turandot gives an epic, powerfully visual and thumping musical reading. The immensity of sound that the enthusiasm of conductor Asher Fisch demands pushes his artists to the limit with only the strong surviving. Regardless of the overindulgence and occasional misalignment with the onstage artists, the music emanating from the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, in a it's thrilling range, was mesmerising.

The music and staging all work wonders in an opera that, more than others, doesn't generally ask its cast to do somersaults when acting but which requires exceptional and seamless vocal application. On this front there were unexpected disappointments.

Goran Jurić (Timur) and Irina Lungu (Liù)
From the start, hefty tenor Johan Botha took the notes in hand but struggled to convert them into a tightly refined whole. Botha's usual power was unreliable and if he was saving himself for a "Nessun dorma" to impress the audience, the highlight never came and choosing not to take a victorious hold on the last "vincera". The woolly warmth of the voice was frayed at the edges and his overall performance appeared laboured, both vocally and physically.

Botha was upstaged noticeably by formidable bass Goran Jurić who gave the role of Calaf's father, Timur, a huge presence. Mostly wheelchair reliant, Jurić portrayed the ageing Timur with the nobility his identity hides with striking fluidity in voice and a rumbling force that reeks of determination and belies his character's ailing body.

The rich and assured-voiced Irina Lungu also gave a distinguished performance as Liù, singing effortlessly with an attractive top and impressing with her ghostly sustained pianissimo while magnifying her character well beyond her slave girl status. In a monumental finale Liù ascends to her death in a caged harness, rising above a shattered Turandot who, defeated, falls to the ground. Surrounded by a swaying forest of bamboo, the scene is a magnificent ending at the point where Puccini reached before his untimely death and where here the production ends, feeling abrupt but surprisingly resolved.

As Turandot's father, the Emperor Altoum shows little of his authority with tenor Ulrich Ress's lacklustre performance. Ping (Andrea Borghini), Pang (Kevin Conners) and Pong (Matthew Grills) are more synchronised in step than they are as a trio of voice but Borghini set himself apart with an his exceptionally solid and resonant baritone. The Bayerische Staatsoper chorus came to the party with strength of voice but occasionally flummoxed with balance and cues.

Nina Stemme (Turandot)
Much rested on the shoulders of Swedish soprano Nina Stemme and she never disappointed. Having recently performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera, Stemme brought unrelenting power, firm technique and hellish ferocity to forge a Turandot of otherworldly voice. Turandot's lament for her brutalised ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, in her opening aria, "In questa reggia", was replete with harrowing sentiment and the three riddles were spat with enough voluminous ripple to reach the bowels of the house. Stemme makes believe there is no limit to the voice.

Despite Turandot's popular appeal in the repertoire, it rarely makes me think I'm seeing a work I'll be pining for. This Bayerische Staatsoper production pushes the possibilities so marvellously, however, that it renews the desire to see what other concepts can be thrown at it to compliment Puccini's score. This time, it was more than enough to excuse a few vocal disappointments.

Bayerische Staatsoper

Production photographs: Wilfried Hösl

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Compromised concoction in Opera Australia's latest 'Cuban' Carmen

In Opera Australia's new production of Bizet's last opera Carmen from acclaimed director John Bell, Act IV's final tragic scene is riveting and speaks of everything the love-plagued Carmen and Don José are fatally destined for. Under the cool blue-green light of evening in a desolate town square, mezzo soprano Clémentine Margaine and tenor Yonghoon Lee are at their finest in both voice and acting as the drama boils over. Getting to this point, however, was tricky in this blazing colour of a place Bell makes us believe is "something like Havana" - Escamillo's invitation to the bullfight in Seville would otherwise be impossible for his fans to attend.

Act IV, Opera Australia's new production of Carmen
In this 'Cuban' retro-contemporary setting under apparent military rule, Michael Scott-Mitchell's dilapidated and grungy three-sided set borders a barren square incorporating a sunken-stepped obliquely shaped foreground area. The 19th century detailed facades look fitting enough even though they're cut-off without adornment at the top, but Teresa Negroponte's boldly coloured costumes, as memorably eye-catching as they are, create discord between what the story tells us and who these people are in this sleazy and corrupt quarter. The factory girls look more dressed for cocktails at the beach than ready for work and the Panama-hatted, satin-suited smugglers and sequence-costumed gypsies stand out like flamboyant film stars. As it turns out, the contraband is a mix of high-end fashion and liquor as well as expected arms.

Apart from a few prop changes, the set remains constant for the entire four acts. A VW Kombi van is smartly driven into the square for Act II as a mobile Lillas Pastia outdoor cafe but what is a public place creates the hiccup a with Zuniga knocking to enter. For Act III, industrial lighting drops to suggest the square is now the inside of a warehouse with more success. Trent Suidgeest's lighting manages to create the suggested transitions.

Spanish/Cuban flare fires up energetically in colour and hip-swinging choreography by Kelley Abbey which pushes the entertainment value to highs. The boys chorus are in fine voice as they cheekily take ownership of the streets and they sure can steal the moment with acrobatic street dancing.

But the concoction needs stronger direction. When the camouflage-uniformed riot troops arrive with shields to break up the fighting girls it appears clumsy, the crowd of onlookers for Act IV's parade are bundled up in the centre and almost all the soloist work is restricted to the fore stage. Much more is wanting in this fiesta-like staging and the vocal output wasn't always smooth either.

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and Yonghoon Lee as Don José 
What might be expected of Carmen's  eagerness to flaunt with authority and flirt with the men comes across more frighteningly than seductively in Margaine's opening Habanera with an uneasy look of choreographed steps and overly jerky movements. Margaine's distinctive, wonderfully rich-centred and fleshy instrument also suffered the same push and pull of phrasing with heavy gasps. It is not until the end of Act II when Don José intends to retreat from Carmen that Margaine suddenly turns everything around, as if liberated from the flirtatious demands. In this tense and dangerous extended duet with Lee, the voice began to balance, the top radiated and an independent, genuinely passionate heart took over. In the end, Margaine acts out a woman fighting for the freedom to be what she wants while dying from the inside in a poignant and arresting performance.

Lee wasn't without early troubles either but quickly found much-needed balance between orchestra and stage by turning down the bolting power to present an impressive and intriguing Don José. Full of volatility, strength and exhibiting stunning volume contractions to ignite a fluttering pianissimo, Lee stealthily intoxicates as a performer. At times he is quietly distant while harbouring a sense of frustration, later he convincingly portrays the jealous lover and then finally makes a crushing plea for Carmen to love him with all the looks of a beggar. I had no doubt that Don José's dying mother had in fact died (though the story doesn't tell us so) and the final blow had been dealt to a man gone completely off the rails.

Yonghoon Lee as Don José and Natalie Aroyan as Micaëla
As the bullfighter celebrity Escamillo, baritone Michael Honeyman is all dandy-like and satin-suited and sings the audience-favourite Toreador Song with dignified robustness and well-paced tempo but there is a lack of virility in his interpretation of the role.

Natalie Aroyan is the quiet achiever of the night, giving a consistently assured performance as the good, brave-hearted Micaëla. Pure in tone with a sweet legato and gleaming at the top, Aroyan marks her music with touching ecclesiastical grace and gives Micaëla a somewhat heroine charm in Act III's "C'est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire" as she brings news to Don José of his mother's decline.

Act II's delightful quintet, "Nous avons en tête une affaire!", brings together, with Carmen, the wrong-side-of-the-law characters Dancairo (Luke Gabbedy), Remendado (Kanen Breen), Frasquita (Jane Ede) and Mercédès (Margaret Trubiano) in a capable line up but not reaching the capabilities these excellent artists can show. Adrian Tamburini's rugged Zuniga is fortified splendidly with machismo-voiced bass but Christopher Hillier's smallish role as Morales was sung rawly. The Opera Australia Chorus (ladies in particular) provided luscious and thrusting vocal and costumed colour where direction lacked.

Margaret Trubiano, Michael Honeyman and Jane Ede
In the pit, conductor Andrea Molino brought out a deeply sensuous side to Bizet's score while showing great sensitivity with the stage, the tempi perfectly assisting to elevate the drama. Only a tad more percussive oomph felt needed at times but nothing was lost in this night of many a popular tune where the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra excelled.

Bizet never lived to see the success of Carmen but a lifetime of colour will keep this Carmen going for a while to satisfy new audiences. Unless the direction is tightened however, for the most part, they are missing out on Carmen's spellbinding potential. Margaine, Lee, Aroyan and Honeyman have come to the end of there season in this first casting. Milijana Nikolic, Brandon Javanovich, Shane Lowrencev and Stacey Alleaume have the task ahead.

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 12th August

Production Photographs: Keith Saunders

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Prokofiev with punch: Opera Australia's juicy The Love of Three Oranges in Sydney

Sergei Prokofiev's wackily-titled satirical opera, The Love for Three Oranges, is wacky all the way down to the details in Opera Australia's raucous and infrequently presented production which premiered in 2005. From director Francesca Zambello's characteristic sense of integrated theatrical perfection, the frothy fairytale-entertainment and comic intrigue are squeezed out so electrically that it's unfathomable to think that it could play to anything less than a full house. For it, a strong contingent of highly talented Opera Australia soloists and an animated Opera Australia Chorus come together under revival director Matthew Barclay for something like a fancy dress reunion party. Their total commitment in bringing infectious appeal is palpable.

Rosario La Spina (The Prince) and Catherine Bouchier (Princess Nicoletta)
In a sense, the work defies compartmentalisation, perhaps to its detriment, but it has such magic in its touch that I wonder how could it not sit comfortably amongst Sydney's busy summer season of the usually more popular works like The Magic Flute. It's not only opera, it's so gorgeously accessible.

A good part of its engaging power is attributable to Tom Stoppard's brilliant and witty English libretto, without which seems unimaginable for an English-speaking audience. The text bounces comfortably on Prokofiev's brash, flexing music and is delivered with such clarity on the whole that you need to pinch yourself for looking up at the surtitles.

Conductor Anthony Legge worked marvellously in reigning in the amusing and chaotic proceedings with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra providing polished support and grand flatulent brass highlights. Limitations of the pit drain acoustic warmth but the music nonetheless finds plenty of room to breathe.

Diagnosed as suffering from "galloping malingeritis" in Stoppard's version, medicine cannot cure the melancholic Prince. Laughter and entertainment is the only cure in this rather directionless kingdom (something to suggest the powerful force the arts play in reviving a culture's heart for which our political leaders might note). With a cure comes a curse as evil forces conspire to derail the Prince's succession to the throne by condemning him to search the world for Three Oranges he has been doomed to fall in love with. A rollercoaster journey backfires in the end as the Prince finds love inside the Third Orange, his Princess Ninetta. Evil escapes to rear its head another day.

Kanen Breen as Truffaldino
For the eyes, designers George Tsypin (sets), Tanya Noginova (costumes) and Mark Howett (lighting) have created a tantalising and colourific circus-like atmosphere for their troupe of individual quirky characters. Luminous resin objets (including three exotic oranges) and a fluorescent-bright laboratory-like setting showcase the level of sophistication in detail achieved by every skilled craftsperson. Costumes appear painstakingly but lovingly tailored to meet choreographer Denni Sayers's injection of acrobatic demands which include succulently-danced cacti, playing cards and liquorice-like Napoleonic soldiers. Pounds of makeup enhance theatrical individuality.

Prokofiev's music, while lacking in identifiable arias, generously magnifies the characters in a way which reflects natural, real-time conversational flow. The greater the empathic and characterful delivery in the text without throwing musically out the window, the greater is the success.

In the long list of soloists there is a star, a performer so uncannily gifted you wonder what more this man could have up his sleeve. It seems Kanen Breen is always on stage (and maybe he is) as the endearing half-Chaplinesque, half-clown court jester Truffaldino. Breen zips through the text with distinctive insightfulness and gestural play with his coaxing, rich and gnarly baritone powerfully driving his character. Probably one of the most physically flexible opera singers today, Breen milks every moment with perfectly timed comedy when even a taste of the Prince's vomit is done with charm.

Adrian Tamburini and Kanen Breen 
Tenor Rosario La Spina trudges through the story with weight to shoulder as the Prince, giving the role adequate lyrical warmth and the newfound energy to partake in the work's well-known Opus 33 March which has a wildly concocted "The Time-Warp" song dance routine quality from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. His Prince convincingly swoons over the bright-voiced soprano of Julie Lea Goodwin's peachy Princess Ninetta.

Letting loose a fiercely powerful top, Antoinette Halloran also stands out as the glamorous goth Fata Morgana. David Parkin impresses and brings a stern, oaky-rich bass to the zimmer frame-pushing, hard of hearing King of Clubs. Adrian Tamburini is a hoot as the biggest-boobed Cook you're likely to bump into. Margaret Trubiano whips her way into a great performance as the tight leather suited dominatrix Princess Clarissa. Victoria Lambourn is primly officious as Smeraldina though becomes lost in the lower range. Andrew Moran is striking as the obedient Leander and could just about pass for George Calombaris if he sported a cravat. As the clinician-like Pantaloon, Luke Gabbedy is steadfastly secure in voice and Gennadi Dubinsky is commandingly dark and resonant as the wizard Chelio. Smaller roles down the list are pleasingly portrayed with Pelham Andrews as Farfarello, Eva Kong as Linetta, Catherine Bouchier as Nicoletta and David Greco as the Herald.

Not a spare seat should be available in the house. It's Prokofiev with punch and a production the company should be very proud of.

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 9th July

Production Photographs: Prudence Upton