Friday, September 30, 2016

Four Saints in Three Acts blessed with a heavenly theatrical Australian premiere at Victorian Opera.

Raphael Wong and Ensemble
By God, that Four Saints in Three Acts is good. Nonsense hasn't quite ever left me so entranced and uplifted, even more so than my memories of church itself. Whatever could "He asked for a distant magpie" mean? Directed by Nancy Black with co-director Dr Kim Vincs, Victorian Opera have indeed blessed composer Virgil Thomson and librettist Gertrude Stein's surrealistic delight with a heavenly theatrical 3-D experience for its overdue Australian premiere.

In the thick of the Parisian artistic milieu of the 1920s, American ex-pats Stein and Thomson's collaboration flouted with many traditional aspects of opera, no less than premiering it with an all-black cast in the USA in 1934. Stein's mashed up libretto defies any narrative sticking power, yet it binds with Thomson's frisky score with effervescent playfulness and lyrical ease.

It was all sung with gleaming strength by a cast of enthusiastic performers from the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) alongside the young guns of Victorian Opera's professional development program and some more experienced hands.

With almost 50 performers constantly on stage, there's St Teresa and St Ignatius amongst a host of saints real and imagined, and Compère and Commère who preside from either side of the theatre balconies, appearing to both set the scene and direct it's course.

The music resounds with nourishing ecclesiastical simplicity together with folkish tunes at one with the American prairies and a sprinkle of Gilbert and Sullivan seasoning, which conductor Phoebe Briggs lets crisply bounce and ricochet marvellously. The 15-member Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra glistened on opening night with a richness of sound spreading out far and wide, a sound deceivingly richer and greater than their number.

Hayley Edwards, Imara Waldhart, Sophia Wasley and Shakira Dugan
As the one-hour performance unfolds, one moment you latch onto a thought, the next it's gobbled up by another. Stein leaves you scratching your head for meaning, then gloriously gives us the power to have faith in her explorative journey. It seems so apt then that the subject of the work revolves around something resembling a convention of saints whose own faith, devoutness and industry made them handpicked for the job to keep the mystery of faith alive.

The work's expression through the creativity of theatrical staging is paramount in making it coerce, confront and alter perceptions like few works can and the team at Victorian Opera have once again flexed their inventive muscle to do so. For it, a mesmerising fairytale-like beauty explodes in Deakin Motion.Lab's digital scenography (directed by Dr Kim Vics), under Peter Darby's low-intensity lighting. Costume supervisor Candice MacAllister uses a palette of white and ivory, effectively highlighting the higher-status saints in hooped skirts, pantaloons and ruffs.

A rotating branch you can reach out and touch in a bright cloudy blue sky, a fanciful gothic cathedral that spins and threateningly thrusts its angularity, a rambling garden and brook from which fish leap, a hovering lamb, a gigantic snake, an infinite stairway to the heavens and a lion we see scouting what becomes an Armageddon-like landscape of a burnt stormy sunset, the graphics seem rich in Christian symbology. Then, in the end, they seem to coalesce into a freakish but harmonious paradise that allows all to have a deserved place in this chaos.

That director Nancy Black has imbued the entire performance with vitality, detail and expression from her cast is a credit to her vision. The shear power of the work is realised when you walk away from it with a sense that everything you witnessed was routinely understood by all its participants, and as if the strange English language they sang was never an impediment to their proceedings.

Darcy Carroll and Ensemble
With too many talents to number, singling out just a few seems sacrilege. Nonetheless, the night was enhanced by the intellectual and gentlemanly Compère, Jerzy Kozlowski, whose robust port wine bass caresses trustingly, and the scolding-toned, bookish Commère, Margaret Arnold. Sophia Wasley shone with a bright and incisive soprano as a divinely agile St Teresa 1 while her double, St Teresa 2, was portrayed with assuredness by moody-dark mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan. Baritone Raphael Wong provided well-grounded reinforced strength as St Ignatius, Carlos E Bárcenas unleashed his now signature highly emotive and resonant tenor as St Chavez, Darcy Carroll's polished baritone accompanied his statuesque presence as St Plan, and Rhian Tuohy as St Settlement and Hayley Edwards as both St Celestine and St Anne sang with angelic prowess. Commendations to all other saints in the firmament.

Much artistic energy has been invested in this wildly scintillating production. It seems such a shame that it's over after just one preview and two performances. I pray that it'll be resurrected. Those 3-D glasses need to be used again.

Victorian Opera
Malthouse Theatre
Until 1st October

Production photographs: Charlie Kinross

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Lyric Opera of Melbourne succulently successful staging of Our Man in Havana: Herald Sun Review

An epic spectacular with marketability: San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber

In a string of commissioned works by San Francisco Opera, the latest is a very marketable one with the potential to reach a new audience of millions. The world premiere of American-Chinese composer Bright Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber, based on the epic Chinese classic written in the 18th century by Cao Xuequin, is sure to have future seasons at any number of impressive new opera houses China can boast.

A scene from San Francisco Opera's Dream of the Red Chamber
When sung in Chinese (Mandarin), it should woo the masses in China, supposedly as familiar with the story as westerners are of Romeo and Juliet. For its San Francisco public, however, it's sung in English with English and Chinese supertitles. Being so, it brings accessibility, but I'd rather have preferred to experience it with its own characteristic diphthongs and song as part of the exotic cultural totality that Chinese director Stan Lai and designer Tim Yip so lavishly offer. It's not as if the opera world is short of accomplished Chinese speaking singers, a few who feature in the production itself, or inexperienced in dealing with a foreign language libretto.

Owing more to western classical tradition, Sheng's music is deliciously bridged with descriptive strands of Chinese music incorporating the qin that form part of a richly textured orchestrated continuum. Apart from obvious snippets of Puccini's popular Chinese-set Turandot ringing through that I wished I wasn't hearing, the soundscape contains a beauty that conductor George Manahan easily conveyed via precise playing from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

David Henry Hwang's libretto is brushed with lines and lines of poetic metaphor and it's sung in broad, sometimes distracting, American-accented English by a cast of powerhouse, predominantly Asian singers to tell a story of love conquering desire and temptation but after which its bloom is ripped apart by clawing interests of wealth and status.

Pureum Jo and Yijie Shi
It's metaphysical framework is established by a narrator, an old monk (Randall Nakano) cautioning a stone and a flower that the Earthly love they desire will not turn out as they believe. The stone has supplied the dew to nurture the flower and, ignoring the monk, they metamorphose as Bao Yu (Yijie Shi) and Dai Yu (Pureum Jo), cousins belonging to two powerful dynastic families. They have the blessing of Granny Jia (Qiulin Zhang) in marriage but Bao Yu's mother, Lady Wang (Hyona Kim), fiercely opposes it. Lady Wang's fortunes depend on her daughter, Princess Jia (Karen Chia-ling Ho), one of the Emperor's concubines, and forging her relationship with the wealthy Aunt Xue (Yanyu Guo), whose daughter, the heiress Bao Chai (Irene Roberts), she wants Bao Yu to marry.

I caught myself momentarily more focused on the richly embroidered and flowing costumes in Act I, not helped by a little sterility in the direction of the larger populated scenes and lines of similes and metaphors that saturate the story. The act's concluding septet soars vocally without little visual tension in the fate at hand with the likely marriage of Bao Yu to Bao Chai.

The eleven scenes over two acts move from The Grand Hall to Dai Yu's chamber to the Pear Court Pavilion and so on, displaying the wealth of the two families with Academy Award-winning designer Tim Yip's detailed and vibrant designs unfolding like intricate picture book pop-ups under Gary Marder's evocative lighting shifts.

Act II's opening bamboo grove is where Stai's direction successfully transforms as the dramatic relief lifts intensely. Greater intimacy emerges between the characters and continues more satisfyingly through to the story's shattering finale of loss.

Structurally, the aged monk's interjecting narration does little to bind the plot that the scenes themselves don't do, though Randall Nakano imparts wisdom and kindness in the role. Warmth and firmness of voice, tenor Yijie Shi skips from youthful nonchalance to passionate young man as Bao Yu, pairing tenderly with soprano Pureum Jo's pure-hearted and lucent, agile-voiced Dai Yu. Together they exert a combined power and sensitivity to attain the believability of their journey.

Karen Chia-ling Ho, Qiulin Zhang and Hyona Kim
Qiulin Zhang's dark plummy richness of voice gives distinctiveness to her motherly Granny Jia. Hyona Kim has formidable presence as the disdainful-faced Lady Wang. Irene Roberts is an assured and graceful Bao Chai, Karen Chia-ling Ho is compelling as the introspective and troubled Princess Jia and Yanyu Guo breathes with authority as Aunt Xue. Supporting roles slot in comfortably and the San Francisco Opera Chorus lend well-shaped potency.

Dream of the Red Chamber does a remarkable job in condensing epic storytelling into three hours of opera. Visually, musically and vocally it pumps out much beauty but its poetic foundation could benefit with directional tweaking and the dream I have of seeing it performed in the language of its origin. It will be performed next March at the Hong Kong Arts Festival again in English before a Chinese libretto is likely to see the light of day in mainland China.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 29th September

Production photographs: Cory Weaver

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An opening night of opulence to austerity with Andrea Chénier under McVicar's microscope at San Francisco Opera

When the curtain was raised for the opening performance of San Francisco Opera's new production of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, Act I's opulent palatial salon setting shimmering in crystal and gold must have overwhelmingly gratified the well-dressed and gowned patrons in attendance for the 94th season opening gala. The ornate War Memorial Opera House too looked splendid, decked out in festoons of red, white and blue, lending as much to patriotic fervour alongside a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as to the opera's 18th century French Revolution setting.

Yonghoon Lee as Andrea Chénier
Warm words of welcome came from incoming General Director, Michael Shivlock. And when the name of the company's Music Director and conductor was sorted out after another high profile company representative simply forgot who it was, Maestro Nicola Luisotti, unfazed, responded with music rich in poetry, texture and beauty crafted by comforting and precise playing by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

In this co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (in which Jonas Kaufmann performed the title role) and National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, it took tenor Yonghoon Lee's arrival as Andrea Chénier, in his San Francisco Opera debut, to spark up the stage and rectify the poor projection from some preceding principals. Lee set himself apart almost immediately with his immense vocal engine.

As the steadfast poet Chénier, Lee showed beautiful gradation of the voice with phrasing that drew the listener in with every breath interval. When he reached fortissimo heights, Lee did so with thrilling intensity without ever overexerting. When the initially reluctant Chénier makes his poetic declamation shaming the aristocracy for the sufferings of the poor in "Un dì all' azzurro spazio" Lee delivered it with impact that sang out to our own modern day privileged sector of society.

And while the spectacle of Robert Jones's lavish sets and Jenny Tiramani's sumptuous period-perfect costumes dazzled under Adam Silverman's crisp, effective lighting (though sometimes coming across too sharply lit in Acts II and III), the narrative feels piecemeal as it seesaws between the political and personal without feeling dramatically complete. As the opulence gives say to austerity, I was, however, struck with a delayed appreciation in the way director David McVicar approached the work.

Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena di Coigny
We presume a convincing portrayal of love will unfold between Chénier and the aristocratic daughter of the Contessa di Coigny, Maddalena, who soprano Anna Pirozzi, also making her house and American debut, rendered with a rich and lustrous tone. Pirozzi shaped a light and clean top and pushed to high-geared power while maintaining purity of tone in Act II's duet with Lee. Then in Act 3's "La mamma morta", the voice streamed with emotive wealth, not at all showing any sign of sickness despite the pre-performance announcement.

Complications arise with the di Coigny estate servant-cum-revolutionary leader Carlo Gérard, who has long loved Maddalena and drives the tragedy forward in the ensuing upheaval. As Gérard, baritone George Gagnidze (principal number three in their San Francisco Opera debut), brought rich dimension and authority to his character, his deep oaky resonance and vocal fluidity increasingly making their mark along the way.

But Chénier's love seemed unreciprocated by Maddalena as expressed by the subtleties and chemistry at play and, though incredulous, perhaps McVicar's re-examination of Luigi Illica's libretto was saying something very different to expectation. With Chénier's choice not to flee Paris after losing the favour of the revolutionaries by denouncing Robespierre, Maddelena, broken and desperate, loses her safe haven after his subsequent conviction of death. You get the sense that Madalena is more willing to go to the guillotine to release herself from a life in semi-hiding that punishes her than from her loosely expressed love for a now doomed Chénier. If I'm wrong, it at least felt more gratifying to see it this way.

George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard
The stage wasn't short on other memorable performances. Schemingly lurking and nimbly prancing about, Joel Sorensen brought great individuality to his role as the spy, L'Incredible. David Pershall's solid bass braced Chénier's robustness with authority as his friend Roucher.

J'Nai Bridges gave fulsome mezzo-soprano depth and sympathetic heart as Maddelena's maid Bersi, Robert Pomakov was a sturdy Mathieu and Catherine Cook's haughty Contessa di Coigny entertainingly tickled with acerbic tone of voice that matched her offside condescending expressions.

Accompanied with animated assuredness, the San Francisco Opera Chorus provided excellent vocal balance and it was hard not to tell that the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps, distinguished in style, weren't singing along too as the total effect bonded so seamlessly.

There's so much on offer on the musical, vocal and visual front to make up for Andrea Chénier's bumpy narrative journey. McVicar even gives it a little more worth to look at it further under the microscope.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 30th September

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival excites with a fine festival vintage

The richness of expression opera can achieve feels a perfect match in a setting where a tiny fruit is transformed into great complexity. Spread across three landmark wineries, Fowles, Mitchelton and Tahbilk in central Victoria and packaged strongly by Festival Artistic Director Linda Thompson, there was noticeable structural improvement, subtle new complexities and added maturity in this 2016 festival vintage, the second Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival.

Raphael Wong and Alexandra Lidgerwood, Bastien et Bastienne
At Fowles's serviceable Wine Shed, what a thrill it was to meet Bastien et Bastienne (1868), a little work written when Mozart was just twelve. How he could look at young lovers' games and write with melodious maturity!

Though bare-staged, Greg Carroll's vivid, bravely ill-mannered and lively direction and Pam Christie's crisp piano accompaniment will keep the one-act singspiel alive in memory. As a pair of soft-punk hotheads, Alexandra Lidgerwood's bright peachy-voiced Bastienne and Spencer Chapman's light, mellifluously sung Bastien made a lightning and convincing duo, both having no qualms in cheekily engaging the audience. Raphael Wong provided superb heavyweight baritone resonance as the cloaked soothsayer, Colas.

Three contemporary Nano-Operas highlighted just how effective opera can beautify and brace simple storytelling, strangely enough, even when the text is not clear. Sometimes we can add our own, as in composer Katy Abbott-Kvasnica's The Domestic Sublime (2011)It wasn't often clear what soprano Alexander Ioan was singing about from Chris Wallace-Crabe's text but as she ironed and folded clothes and sat down to a cup of coffee, she did so with intoxicating force and a limpid effortlessness while her voice floated breathtakingly to the ears.

Composer Natalie Williams showed her diversity of style with two works. The first, Puddle of Youth (2013), gleamed under Greta Nash's smart direction together with Wendy Grose and Karen Van Spall's eccentric and heartwarming portrayal of old friends Gladys and Estelle. When Gladys is confronted with Estelle's fear of drowning in the fountain of youth, a clam-shaped kiddies pool which Michael Lampard exotically presides over, she decides friendship is more important than the promise of youth.

Williams's second work, Tuesdays with Pictures (2015), to a libretto by Madeleine St Romain, is a story about three para-natural private investigators (Elizabeth Chennell, Lisa Parker and Joshua Erdrlyi-Gotz) who believe they can cleanse a couple's house of ghosts (Allegra Giagu and Spencer Chapman). Realised with black and white gothic darkness, the polished performances weren't enough, however, to shine insightfulness on the work.

A short and informative Q&A session followed with the two composers hosted by Adrian McEniery, Williams outlining how Puddle of Youth was composed in 12 hours alongside the librettist Vynne Meli, then given 12 hours in rehearsal and subsequently performed. Winner of the Atlanta Opera 24-hour Composition Competition 2013 and the most enjoyable of the three works presented, it showed and shocked with what sharpness and quality can be achieved under pressure.

Quite the highlight on the first full day was the thoughtful direction from Greg Eldridge and the strong cast assembled for Leonard Bernstein's dark Trouble in Tahiti (1952). In a simple but effectively furnished staging in Fowles's Wine Shed incorporating bedroom, living room, kitchen and office in a 1960s setting, Eldridge gives heroic resolution to the story of a bickering couple whose relationship has withered.

Patrick MacDevitt, Hadleigh Adams, Raphael Wong and Desiree Frahn,
Trouble in Tahiti
As an exasperated Dinah, you found the lusciously hearty and pure-toned soprano Sophie Yelland staring at her audience as if pleading through a camera lens. Hadleigh Adams brought an aggravating tension to the drama with his deeply cavernous and adrenaline-rich baritone. The two matched each other in power and a feeling for their roles that was nothing less than impressive, with Scene IV's "Well, of all people" given a powerfully poignant interpretation of their accidental lunchtime street encounter in which they lie about having appointments.

Desiree Frahn, Patrick MacDevitt and Raphael Wong threaded through the domestic tension with well-sung cheesy appeal as the satirical trio. Inconspicuously from the side, conductor Matthew Toogood led a band of seven providing plump musical support, if at times bearing too heavily on the voices.

On Saturday night, wine glasses were filled and emptied in jubilant surroundings as part of a three-course, three-chef-prepared gourmet dinner for around 150 guests at Mitchelton for a gala evening entitled Losing the Plot. Hosted by the festival's Music Director, conductor Brian Castles-Onion giving a spicy and unconventional insight into the arias and ensembles presented, some big names and exciting newcomers in Aussie opera entertained in style.

Amongst the smorgasbord of talent, soprano Desiree Frahn impressed with "Quando m'en vo" from La Bohème. Of soprano Natalie Aroyan's two main course arias, her "Ritorna vincitor" from Aida was truly victorious. Soprano Sophie Yelland extended her splendid run with a sublimely luminous "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from Samson et Dalila and baritone Michael Lewis provided an ample tasting and brute emotion for his following day's performance with "Pietà, rispetto, amore" from Macbeth. Guest artists Dimity Shepherd, Alexandra Ioan, Michael Lapina, Andrew Moran and Hadleigh Adams all added their own fine vocal and theatrical signatures and the entire festival ensemble came together marvellously, concluding with Natalie Aroyan and Michael Lewis leading "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from La Traviata. Everyone no doubt drank to that.

On Sunday, in the imposing Barrel Hall at Tahbilk Winery, the reaction was thunderous for soprano Desiree Frahn as Stephanie and mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd as Anne in the Australian premiere of Jake Heggie's one-act 40-minute opera, To Hell and Back (2006).

Desiree Frahn and Dimity Shepherd, To Hell and Back 
Part of the beauty in the vocal writing revealed in this short work is the robust support the mezzo soprano line gives to the soprano, seemingly mimicking the confronting story of one woman's survival after violent spousal abuse thanks to her mother-in-law. In this one-off performance, Shepherd's foundation-firm and luscious tone bonded powerfully with Desiree Frahn's achingly expressive and cleanly cut soprano. Costumed in bright floral printed dresses and performing in a pristine white-curtained stage surround on a white stage floor, intended or not, the at-odds aesthetic/emotional association spoke loudly of abuse's insidious impact on the purity of souls.

In the final work of the weekend, a faultless cast blasted Mitchelton's Underground Cellar with chilling force in a world premiere, The Scottish Opera (2016). Arranged by Peter Stopschinski and directed and designed by Luke Leonard, this 80-minute work is a gripping, shortened and stylised meshing of Verdi's Macbeth. Seemingly set in a post-industrial construction site, with Alison Heryer's costumes showing the kilted Scots wearing toolkits in place of the sporran and fitted with status-bearing hard hats, a testosterone-charged climate prevailed.

Lighting pulses accompanied a total effect that included eerie projected soundscapes which, together with a storm of voice and music, resonated through the darkness with 'Sensurround'-like intensity as each scene bled intriguingly to the next. Only in the final moments as Macbeth is ambushed did the theatrical impact wane in an otherwise handsome production.

Stopschinski's percolating arrangement for just seven out-of-sight musicians, including Geoffrey Morris on electric guitar, conveyed the essence of Verdi's score remarkably with Warwick Stengards conducting with passion.

Michael Lewis and Linda Thompson, The Scottish Opera
In the title role, Opera Australia regular Michael Lewis mirrored Macbeth's soul with haunting power together with measures of anguish and vulnerability while contouring his robust and expressive baritone sensationally with the text.

Artistic Director Linda Thompson led by example with a fine portrayal of Lady Macbeth. With cold-faced and calculated manner in calmly assessing her domain, Thompson displayed a fearsome elegance and sung with a confident, rich and easy flight across her soprano, demonstrating too a pleasing coloratura. Amongst the many fine performances, Michael Lapina impressed, raising his immense coiling tenor with fearsome excellence as Macduff, as did the smooth stony bass of Michael Lampard's commanding yet apprehensive Banquo.

For those who saw last year's eerily stylised The Difficulty of Crossing a Field by David Lang, you'll recognise Leonard's edgy choreographed directorial style, and it's easy to imagine these two works paired alongside each other in what would be a deeply rewarding double bill.

Finally, at the Tahbilk Barrel Hall, I haven't forgotten the nonsensical comic jaunt that came with Gilbert and Sullivan's Thespis (1871), in an arrangement based on the duos first 'lost' collaboration. While the gods, ruled by Jupiter, were losing popularity, I was losing interest in this festival anomaly. A few good numbers couldn't help but raise spirits, the community chorus sang along capably and enthusiastically with a sumptuously dressed troupe of thespian aesthetes and Max Gillies's doddery Jupiter and Adrian McEniery's perfectly refined Thespis did the trick, but the marvellous merry-go-round momentum of quality Gilbert and Sullivan operetta didn't show.

And after all that I might be souring the grapes by pooh-poohing frequent references made to the festival as being world-class. Certainly some world-class performances graced the wineries but one ought to be celebrating these early years for the ideas, growth and humble beginnings before adding world-class labels to a festival. The hard work that goes into staging it and the already fine results are by no means going unappreciated. The challenge lies in padding it out and getting it noticed.

The Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival is over for 2016 already but it's bound to return in 2017 with its admirable mix of seasoned professionals and young artists. Let's then drink to the festival's future! For that, the continued generous support given by the local wineries and the wider community is instrumental.

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival
2nd-4th September 2016
Mitchelton, Tahbilk and Fowles Wineries

Production photographs: Lyz Turner-Clark