Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Opera Australia's emotionally throbbing Götterdämmerung you could immerse yourself in over again: Herald Sun Review

Once Wagner’s four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen premiered in 1876, it was entrusted to eternity. Opera Australia notched their mark on it with Monday’s opening night of Götterdämmerung to conclude the first cycle with a Ring of immense power, emotion and beauty.

Lise Lindstrom, Stefan Vinke and Taryn Fiebig
In Götterdämmerung, the cursed ring is returned to the Rhine and a cataclysmic end for the gods comes coupled with the redemption of love. Wagner’s sublime music and easy to follow libretto are its engine but director Neil Armfield gives it heightened lucidity together with his excellent cast and design team. Armfield’s adeptness at detailing his characters and supplying dramatic context is magnified in very real and relevant ways.

Once his three frumpy Norns have sewn the curtain of fate in the prologue, designer Robert Cousins’s large-framed gable structure features on a revolve that plays a major part in complimenting orchestral passages as time and place segue through each of the three acts.

It’s shelter for Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s lovemaking, a glam home gym for Hagen’s cunning plan to obtain the ring and a marquee for a frou-frou double-wedding reception. Its prominence continues as the forest in the hunting-scene where Siegfried is murdered, the subsequent place of ritual for the tear-inducing washing of his body, then portal of fire for the dramatic immolation. Alice Babidge’s identifiable contemporary costumes assist to lock in immediacy, all sharpened by Damien Cooper’s evocative accented lighting.

A spot of stage and pit tussling didn’t take away from the splendid results conductor Pietari Inkinen once again achieved. The music breathed with attentive modulation and the Melbourne Ring Orchestra took the stage for well-deserved standing ovations for their brilliant and committed work.

Stefan Vinke as Siegfreid and Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde
It took time but the boy-hero Siegfried makes a hugely welcome transformation from scruffy kid to suited buff man and tenor Stefan Vinke’s performance seemed to turn with it. The huge weight of the voice acquired limberness to become aflame with a rich timbre. It was Vinke at his most convincing. In Siegfried’s final words relating his past and adoration of Brünnhilde, Vinke nailed the death of innocence compellingly.

Soprano Lise Lindstrom lit the stage with an outstanding and intensely nuanced Brünnhilde. Everything in Lindsrom’s persona from the joy of love’s security to the vulnerability of sexual violation, grief in hopelessness and nobility in death was a touching masterpiece of portraiture rendered in untiring vocal radiance.

With torpedo projection, dark rumbling bass Daniel Sumegi was magnificent as the pleased-as-punch, calculating and uniformed Hagen. Gunther, the naval captain half-brother, provided the perfect contrast in the gentlemanly hands of Luke Gabbedy and his impressive burnished baritone.

Luke Gabbedy, Daniel Sumegi and Stefan Vinke
Warwick Fyfe’s shorter stage time was no less full of dramatic vocal deployment and spidery creepiness as Alberich, all the way to greedily spying end. Taryn Fiebig added high gloss as the kept-sister Gurtrune and Sian Pendry, as Waltraute, was riveting in her plea to Brünnhilde to relinquish the ring.

Lost without their gold, the glitzy Rhinemaidens returned after what looked like a week on the town but the alluring trio of Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews glowed in melodious voice. As the three Norns. Tania Ferris, Jacqueline Dark and Anna-Louise Cole sewed up an ominous start with nurturing vocal care with Cole’s gleaming soprano projecting superbly in particular and Opera Australia Chorus, in the work’s spare use of their services, massed fervently in voice.

After the seven-hour evening (including intervals), you leave Götterdämmerung pummelled by its emotional force, the artistry by which it is conveyed and more sensitive to the world outside. And you’ll want to do it all over again.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until 16th December

Photo credits: Jeff Busby

Rating: four and a half stars

An unlikely hero, Opera Australia's Siegfried comes with its challenges: Herald Sun Review

Reaching part three, Siegfried lies at the nexus of Richard Wagner’s vast four-part journey through Der Ring des Nibelungen. Grandson to Wotan, ruler of the gods, the young mortal Siegfried is destined to retrieve the ring, ignorant of the supreme power it bestows on its beholder, and win Brünnhilde over.

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
In Opera Australia’s Siegfried, the almighty music-making from the Melbourne Ring Orchestra under conductor Pietari Inkinen’s assiduous leadership continued its exquisite run on opening night. The creative team’s incisive devices — featuring a false proscenium that links each act — provided further intriguing theatricality and director Neil Armfield’s piquant and detailed exploration of the libretto remained evident. For the all-important titular role, however, the results yielded ambiguity.

Whether it’s because Siegfried is the offspring of Sigmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous love, or deprived of contact with the world under Mime’s selfish desire in raising him for purposes to attain the ring, Armfield’s Siegfried is so overplayed and weighted down as a mentally stunted wretch that Siegfried’s subsequent actions in his pursuits to learn fear and quest to find Brünnhilde seem unconvincing as the hero wanting to be seen depicted.

Navigating the balance between this uncomfortable marriage of immaturity and heroism over four hours didn’t come without issue for Stefan Vinke in this punishing role. Vinke’s command and terrific vocal freedom in Act 1’s compelling sword-crafting scene took a trajectory towards visible strain by Act 3 despite sterling heldentenor strength, excellent range and top notes resonating with pinpoint accuracy. Greater reinforcing texture in the voice was hoped for.

Alongside unwavering soprano Lise Lindstrom’s pure-toned and supple liquid radiance as Brünnhilde, the Siegfried Lindstrom faced wasn’t the one on show as she sang out “Do not come near me with your fierce presence”. Siegfried, still persisting with boyish demeanour, looked anything but the man to match Brünnhilde’s poised feminine strength.

Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
Honours for staying power go to towering baritone James Johnson’s increasingly forged temperament as Wotan’s disguised earthly Wanderer.

The surrounding top-gear cast featured Jud Arthur in outstanding form, pumping out bellowing bass from his suitably giant subwoofer-like cave as a naked and grotesque Fafner. The greedy Nibelung dwarf-brothers were impressively realised again with even greater fortified vocals by Graeme Macfarlane and Warwick Fyfe’s nervily animated Mime and Alberich.

Erda returned confused from her wisdom-rejuvenating slumber via Liane Keegan’s colossally sensitive performance and Julie Lea Goodwin’s fluttering golden soprano soothed the air as the Woodbird.

Reservations aside, this seamless fantastical other-dimension nonetheless continues to spin its ever so heightened portrayal of humankind’s travails with enthralling theatre.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until December 14

Photo credits: Jeff Busby

Rating: three and a half stars

Superbly concentrated drama in Opera Australia's Die Walküre: Herald Sun Review

The mightiest words would crumble in shame in describing the beauty of Wednesday night’s opening of Opera Australia’s Die Walküre, the second instalment of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Almost four hours of Wagner’s absorbing music and libretto became realised in near perfection through director Neil Armfield’s sensitive vision, a cast of superlative reach and conductor Pietari Inkinen’s all-encompassing grasp on extracting its soul with the 135-piece Melbourne Ring Orchestra clearly on the same page. The effect was staggering, more so than the production’s 2013 triumph.

Amber Wagner as Sieglinde and Bradley Daley as Siegmund
Even a technical glitch that delayed Act 2 and sent the night over one hour behind couldn’t harm the resilience of an enthralled audience. Over and over again, time proves an inconsequential concept in The Ring.

After Das Rheingold’s broader landscape of power, greed and love renounced, Die Walküre’s night zooms in on the vicissitudes of love with Armfield’s intelligently sharpened focus on character nuance.

Robert Cousins’s restrained designs — Act 1’s little timber hut in the snow, Act 2’s ramped helical structure to the gods and Act 3’s dark emptiness punctured by a huge ring — all aid to concentrate the drama superbly.

Paired as convincing siblings, charismatic tenor Bradley Daley and formidable soprano Amber Wagner portrayed Siegmund and Sieglinde’s newborn but forbidden love with utter and compelling immediacy. Wagner’s performance was nothing less than breathtaking with effortless carriage of the text, firm technique and resourcefully rich expression that secures her in the company of greats.

James Johnson as Wotan and Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde 
In a more seamless performance than Monday night’s Das Rheingold, baritone James Johnson masterfully measured his portrayal of a Wotan clearly lacerated by the dilemma of power, love and sacrifice. Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark, too, fired up a scorching spit-and-grit performance as an incensed Fricka long bearing the infidelity of her husband and Jud. Arthur notched up a gripping, thunderous-voiced and barbaric Hunding.

Of course, all are eager for Brünnhilde and soprano Lise Lindstrom burst from on high as a renegade young paratrooper in that unworldly vocal power and assuredness one hopes for. Notably, the same command characterised her more tender depiction of Brünnhilde’s turmoil and the pathos-filled final farewell to Wotan.

As her sisters in battle, eight other Valkyries supplied muscular support for the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” in a surprisingly vivid scene directed solely on a bare stage as they make their descent in harnesses.

Every moment belonged in a mesmerising continuum of palpable life and if you could convince the most unlikely suspect to see it, they may very well become committed to the The Ring for life.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until December 12

Photo credits: Jeff Busby

Rating: five stars

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Opera Australia's El Kid is an entertaining kids opera with meaningful impact: Herald Sun Review

A magnificent, playful and character-focused Das Rheingold in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

In Wagner’s epic journey through the four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, the concept of time diminishes and an expansive musical landscape opens to set its story of power, greed, dirty deals and the price of love with the power to knock at the conscience. That story started magnificently again Monday night in Das Rheingold (Wagner’s ‘Preliminary Evening’), the first part in Opera Australia’s mammoth Ring Cycle that premiered in 2013 by director Neil Armfield.

James Johnson as Wotan and Jacqueline Dark as Fricka
From the opening majestic orchestral drone and humankind seemingly under the microscope, Armfield keeps the uninterrupted two and a half hours bobbing. Stripped of the superfluous and communicated simply and legibly — conveyed by Robert Cousins’s spacious eye-catching sets -Armfield responds with playful touches on the music while focusing squarely on the characters.

Props are few but none more cleverly lighthearted than the magician’s cabinet, the Tarnhelm. With Alice Babidge’s costumes combining an eclectic mix of power suits, bathing costumes, workwear, feathers and sparkle to define gods, mortals, giants, dwarfs and water nymphs, the total effect is a tantalising breath alongside the swells and contractions of Wagner’s score which conductor Pietari Inkinen rendered with grand sensitivity.

Possession of the Wagnerian might of voice to project well clear of the polished 135-piece Melbourne Ring Orchestra below wasn’t always evident in all but nothing can be taken away from compelling and distinctive characterisation by the strong cast.

Standing vulnerable in his realm as Wotan, ruler of the Gods, James Johnson wore the weight rather than the crown of authority, his richly seasoned and strong-topped baritone needing bottom strength to ride the orchestra. As Fricka his wife, Jacqueline Dark added creamy dark-voiced dominance. Michael Honeyman was a solid oaky-resonant Donner alongside the smooth ringing tenor of James Egglestone’s Froh with fright and hope equally portrayed by Graeme Macfarlane’s dear cowering Mime.

Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews sparkled as the mocking, leggy and alluring Rhine maidens, riding their crowd assisted pompon-gold hoard in glittering form and Hyeseoung Kwon brightly lit up a dragged about Freia

Andreas Conrad as Loge and Warwick Fyfe as Alberich
Performances increased in stature with the thuggish giants Fasolt and Fafner, contracted to build the new palace for the gods and filled out hugely by Daniel Sumegi’s rumbling earth and Jud Arthur’s benzene bass. Andreas Conrad brought superb emphatic fire as the cunning Loge and a riveting, deep lusciously sung Erda came via Liane Keegan.

Most of all, it was Warwick Fyfe’s night as the nerdy and gnarly Alberich, renouncer of love and absconder of the treasure. In a reprise of his 2013 performance, Fyfe completed the music, commanded the stage and, with his intense and fulsome baritone, conveyed his character’s stench with utter magnetism.

As the gods climb the stairs to Valhalla in a glorious rainbow of chorus-girl colour, a chapter closes but the artistic chemistry at work in Armfield’s concept might achieve for its audience the potential to etch itself on raw music long after the production is over.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until December 9

Photo credit Jeff Busby

Rating: four stars

Two popular works, two very different evenings and one champion conductor: La bohème and Carmen in Ljubljana


Hats, coats, gloves and scarves came off for a seat at Slovenian National Opera's evening in wintery Paris for Puccini's perennially popular work, La bohème. Popular it is, but still there were quite a few empty seats in Ljubljana's compact house for director Vinko Möderndorfer's now 10 year-old production.

Act 2, La bohème, Slovenian National Opera and Ballet
Curiously, Möderndorfer steels attention away from Mimi and Rodolfo by a pair of mature-age 'clowns' tracing the lovers' tragedy. Then, Möderndorfer's 'clowns' feature large, with Act 2's Café Momo madly overrun with their robotic mechanical gesturing. For what purpose they served remained a mystery, apart from slapping heaps of gaiety and colour contrast to the impending tragedy. At least for Parpignol, he was never short on like company.

Marko Japelj's sets were simple and serviceable with Act 1 and Act 4's spacious grey stud-walled garret with side-stage stair taking the appearance of being someplace back-of-set. Slavic lace-making skills got a good workout in Alenka Bartl's cuffed and colourful satin 'clown' costumes but the bohemians were thankfully outfitted in more subdued tones and attire. Annoyingly, the staging was hampered by poorly cued lighting.

Starting tentatively, Martina Zadro's Mimi leaned on the dull and demure side but her rich and bright soprano blossomed pleasingly. Branko Robinšak gave Rodolfo warm-rounded appeal, solid projection and sang with conviction, though he seemed creepily more like Mimi's father and the sparks rarely appeared to jump from one to the other.

 Martina Zadro as Mimi
Urška Breznik's Musetta had voluptuousness and presence, if a little overexerted on her top notes, but it was Darko Vidic's toasty-toned and sensitive Marcello that most impressed. Some of the best vocal flesh was added in ensemble work, especially so in the buzzing Act 2 finale and Act 3's earth and fire two-sided quartet.

Maybe a lack of budding little songsters among Ljubljana's ankle biters accounted for the sadly missed kids chorus but, despite the gaudy costumes, the men and women of the chorus shone appealingly. Down below, however, was where the best was happening. Excellence was sustained in the pit under conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink's sympathetic, never grandstanding approach.

But overall, the dots weren't really joining in Ljubljana's La bohème even though the music breathed marvellously and worthy vocals sprouted. It's high time the 'clowns' move on.

Slovenian National Opera and Ballet, Ljubljana
10th November 2016


Taking its audience somewhere warmer on a cold and wet Ljubljana evening, Slovenian National Opera's newish 2015 production of Carmen by British director Pamela Howard would prove a welcome and highly satisfying escape.

Directed and designed with great care, detail and expression, Howard's vision magnified the stage and keenly struck many emotional cords. In particular, Howard showed depth of skill at crowd management - Act 4's spectacle of almost 80 singers on stage was presented with pulsating reality. It was also great to see Ljubljana's children on stage after missing their jollity in La bohème the evening before and another welcome luxury with English surtitles posted.

Blessed with superb musicianship, conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink repeated his superb form after the prior evening's La bohème by delivering a Carmen plump with clarity, polish and ongoing tension.

Nuska Drascek Rojko as Carmen 
Dark-haired and free-moving Nuška Drašček Rojko was a tremendous Carmen - provocative, seamlessly convincing, luscious in voice and as exotic as her name. Even a persistent asymmetrical smirk on the face lured you into her performance as she sang and spun her charms. Solid vocal technique, Spanish flair, castanets and all, Rojko heated up the stage. That her Carmen was so vividly portrayed made the single-minded gypsy's death that much more heartrendingly tearful.

As Don José, Aljaž Farasin performed superbly, giving him great complexity, vulnerability and pent up aggression. It wasn't a big voice but Farasin sang with charismatic warmth, shapeliness and a tender sweet vibrato. A distinguished Escamillo came with Jože Vidic's hearty meat-and-gravy baritone but the upper register tended to stretch out unattractively. As an unflattering and peasant-dressed Micaëla, honeyed soprano Andreja Zakonjšek Krt made an admirable, if not absorbing mark.

When you get crowd scenes so alive with wide-ranging mannerisms and vibrant, unified singing to go with them, you have to applaud all involved. The men, women and children of the chorus deserve credit indeed.

Ljubljana's Carmen from Slovenian National Opera might not have lavish wealth behind it, but it undeniably has the impact to drive home its tragedy in riveting form. Nuška Drašček Rojko is a major stake in its success and following her engagements should certainly come with rewards.

And as it turned out, I also got to hear Jaroslav Kyzlink conduct Smetana's The Bartered Bride just a few days later in Prague and the musical richness continued with similar ebullience and feeling. There's a conductor I'd like to hear again.

Slovenian National Opera, Ljubljana
11th November 2016

Friday, November 18, 2016

Splendidly sung, astutely referenced and never dull: Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at Deutsche Oper Berlin

On opening night at Deutsche Opera's new production of Meyerbeer's grand French opera, Les Huguenots, the bravos and boos rang out as director David Alden and his creative team took to the stage. Thankfully the bravos outweighed the boos in Alden's brazenly teasing, astutely referenced and edgy staging. Over its more than four-hour duration, however never dull, it didn't come without a few sidestepping oddities and a little derrière discomfort.

Juan Diego Flórez (centre), Act 1, Les Huguenots
Amongst the epic orchestral grandeur of Meyerbeer's score and irony housed in Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps' libretto, little flecks of comic additive surface that also comment on religious hypocrisy raised by the 'pleasure-seeking' Catholics at odds with the 'pious' Huguenots, each accusing the other of blasphemy. The Protestant Huguenots don't emerge without being harmed. As tensions increase, "Dieu le veut" or "God wills it" is signposted in large letters above the stage, giving sickening justification for what culminates in a religious assault and the bloody massacre of thousands on St Bartholomew's Day. In Meyerbeer, Scribe and Deschamps's work that premiered in 1836, the historical drama (set in the actual time of the events of 1572) plays out while misinterpreted circumstances surrounding a cross-religious love between the Protestant Raoul and Catholic Valentine ends in a tragic mess.

Alden resets the events unhistorically with hints of fin-de-siècle flair that combine opulence and austerity in a series of handsome and eye-catching strokes with the creative team coming to the party magnificently. An open trussed roof lingers above the stage for many a scene in set designer Giles Cadle's numerous scene changes that not only impart legibility but give Alden utilisation of the stage's entire volume to mix intimate fore-stage scenes with mid-to-deep spatial variations. Costumes by Constance Hoffman clearly delineate the Catholics as distinguished top-hatted and tailed gentleman and elegant-gowned ladies alongside the Huguenots who are drably garbed in grey, like an infestation of rats needing extermination. Adam Silverman's lighting paints a masterpiece of atmospheric appropriateness.

Olesya Golovneva, Patrizia Ciofi and Juan Diego Flórez
Cadle responds freshly and dutifully to the drama many a time, including reference to Act 1's song to the wine of fair Touraine with the Count of Nevers's chateau hall festooned in burgundy and Act 4's lofty-walled salon covered with Nevers's brave predecessors as he sings of his refusal to participate in the massacre as a murderer.

For the first three acts of the five-act work, Alden's playful approach pushes the envelope with showy entertainment that tends to divert attention from the long dramatic arc. Poor-mannered gents singing arias from tabletops, synchronised foot-moving from the gentlemen's sofa, a jaunty cabaret-like banquet with orgiastic tones featuring balloon-clad beauties, then two pretty maids feather-dusting the leading man - Alden's touch teases but it's neither destructive nor crass.

On the other hand, the final two acts do a complete turn as Raoul arrives to meet Valentine, overhears the plot to murder the Huguenots and is torn between cautioning his people and remaining with Valentine. This shift, with all the pathos and sensitivity that Alden exposed between the amorous pair, did more to strike the historical heart of the drama than all the politicking surrounding them.

Olesya Golovneva and Juan Diego Flórez in Act 4, Les Huguenots
But without such a talented and resilient cast as the work demands, time could crawl and, here, every one of the long list of soloists clearly demonstrated their worthiness, both in solo and ensemble display. Juan Diego Flórez luxuriously outfitted the Protestant gentleman Raoul with breathtaking chiaroscuro and dynamic sensibility in voice, sensitive and courageous in action. Opening in superb form to the accompaniment of the solo viola d'amore with "Plus blanche que la blanche hermine” was only a blimp on what was to come. Throughout, note after note provided tantalising listening as the voice reached poignantly deeper while punctuating the air gloriously higher with its delicately serrated vibrato and caressing with its warm viscous tone.

It takes some time before femininity slips in and when it does it arrives in two gorgeously contrasting forms. Angelic and pure-toned soprano Olesya Golovneva's Valentine (daughter of Count de Saint-Bris) began primly and reservedly before becoming more determined and finally heroic in a suitably measured performance. Convincingly heartfelt alongside Flórez, her tormented state of love, faith and duty were masterly brought together with fluidity and force in Act 4's room in Nevers's Parisian town-house.

Oppositely, Patrizia Ciofi dazzles with her slightly zany and playful yet commanding Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. Ciofi opened with sensuous appeal before singing with a lusciously crazed elegance, providing one of the night's early highlights as she comically took her agile coloratura descent while undressing for a regal change in "O beau pays de la Touraine".

Derek Welton and ensemble in Act 3, "Dieu le veut" Les Huguenots
Immense bellowing bass Ante Jerkunica preceded Ciofi in a compelling portrayal of anti-Catholic sentiment in the ricocheting "Piff Paff" aria as Raoul's servant and Huguenot soldier, the loose gun Marcel. In every appearance Jerkunica loomed high as a rough diamond while not only belting out brilliant strength but capturing the quiet, doleful and fine-edged voice of the inner soul. Other noteworthy performances came from Irene Roberts, with her spritely and beautifully ornamented soprano, as the Queen's Page Urbain, Marc Barrard's permeating resonant baritone as the Count of Nevers and Derek Welton's knock-out. clear and authoritative Count of Saint-Bris. Suffering from disunity, the mens chorus lacked the dignified sound of their appearance early on, but transformed marvellously alongside their refined female colleagues.

With Les Huguenots comes an intricate tapestry of music that conductor Michele Mariotti steered commendably, perfectly alternating exposed orchestral showpiece passages with attention to and support of his massed cast. By the time the horrific massacre ends, carried out with dark stylistic theatricality, the eyes and ears have absorbed a walloping great artistic achievement that you're likely to want to see a second time for so many reasons.

Deutsche Oper Berlin
Until 4th February 2017

Production photographs: Bettina Stöss