Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The 3rd Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations
- 2017 -

Revealed via Twitter @OperaChaser on 27th December 2017 commencing at 5pm
Dromana, Victoria.

Award for Outstanding Production, Melbourne (Independent): Lohengrin, Melbourne Opera
Photo: Robin Halls

Every night of the year, opera takes to the stage and impresses its musical, vocal and emotive force on audiences anywhere from Adelaide to Zurich and Reykjavik to Cape Town, from mega-cities to rural outposts, stages big and small. Annual global audience number the tens of millions and people continue to be drawn to its artistic mystique on both sides of the curtain.

This year I was drawn to 70 diverse opera productions in 14 cities across 4 continents and I'm proud of the exceptional work and standards I see from companies large and small, together with the innovative ways I see from those that strive to connect with a wider audience. Opera is alive and will forever remain so.

The 3rd Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations are an opportunity to reflect on the year and are dedicated to all who have contributed in sharing their artistic and creative pursuits by nourishing their audiences with immeasurable and lasting enjoyment.

Thank you to all involved in creating the ephemeral beauty of opera in performance. Again, there is no little ceremony, no trophy and no prize, but I sincerely hope that these awards bring a little pleasure to the deserved artists who bring excellence to the art of opera and all who continue to dig deep into their artistic, dramatic and creative energies.

2017 OperaChaser Awards, Melbourne 

From 30 productions

Outstanding Production
Cavalleria Rusitcana and Pagliacci, Opera Australia

Outstanding Production - Independent
Lohengrin, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Opera in Concert
La Sonnambula, Victorian Opera

Innovative Opera Company
BK Opera

Outstanding Director
Matthew Lutton
Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Director - Independent
Tyran Parke
The Coronation of Poppea, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Conductor 
Phoebe Briggs
The Sleeping Beauty, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Conductor - Independent
David Kram
Lohengrin, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Diego Torre
Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana and Canio in Pagliacci, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role - Independent
Marius Vlad
Title role, Lohengrin, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Rinat Shaham
Title role, Carmen, Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role - Independent
Helena Dix
Elizabeth I, Roberto Devereux, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Samuel Dundas
Silvio, Pagliacci, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role - Independent
Phillip Calcagno
Earl, Roberto Devereux, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Stacey Alleaume
Micaëla, Carmen, Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role - Independent
Caroline Vercoe
Ottavia, The Coronation of Poppea, Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Outstanding Ensemble
The Sleeping Beauty, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Ensemble - Independent
HMS Pinafore, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Set Design
Steffen Arfing
King Roger, Opera Australia

Outstanding Set Design - Independent
Dann Barber
The Coronation of Poppea, Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Outstanding Costume Design
Carla Teti
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, Opera Australia

Outstanding Costume Design - Independent
Lucy Wilkins
Lohengrin, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Lighting Design
Jon Clark
King Roger, Opera Australia

Outstanding Lighting Design - Independent
Lucy Birkinshaw
Roberto Devereux, Melbourne Opera

Commendation for Outstanding Production, Australia: Cavalleria Rusitcana and Pagliacci, Opera Australia
Photo: Keith Saunders

2017 OperaChaser Commendations, Australia

From 10 productions seen in Sydney and Coolangatta.

Outstanding Production
Cavalleria Rusticana and Paglacci, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Opera in Concert
Parsifal, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Director
Damiano Michieletto
Cavalleria Rusticana and Paglacci, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Conductor
Erin Helyard
Anacréon and Pigmalion, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Michael Honeyman
Title role, King Roger, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Ermonela Jaho
Violetta, La Traviata, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Kanen Breen
Arnalta, The Coronation of Poppea, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Lauren Zolezzi
Cupid, Anacrèon and Pigmalion, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Set Design
Paolo Fantin
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Costume design
Tim Chappel
Two Weddings, One Bride, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Lighting Design
David Walter
Aida, Opera Australia, Coolangatta Beach

Special Award for New Australian Work
Melba, Hayes Theatre, Sydney

Commendation for Outstanding Production, International: Die Frau ohne Schatten, Staatsoper, Berlin
Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

2017 OperaChaser Commendations, International

From 30 productions seen in 14 cities: Beijing, Singapore, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Amsterdam, Cardiff, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Bologna, Rome, Turin and Dubai.

Outstanding Production
Die Frau ohne Schatten
Staatsoper, Berlin
Outstanding Director
Penny Woolcock
The Pearl Fishers, LA Opera, Los Angeles

Outstanding Conductor
Zubin Mehta
Die Frau ohne Schatten, Staatsoper, Berlin

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Ildar Abdrazakov
Title role, Prins Igor, Ductch National Opera, Amsterdam

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Stephanie Blythe
Title role, Tancredi, Opera Philadelphia, Philadelphia

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Maurizio Muraro
Dr Bartolo, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Metropolitan Opera, New York

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Agneta Eichenholz
Isabella of France, Edward II, Deutche Oper, Berlin

Outstanding Set Design
Christian Schmidt
Rigoletto, Opéra National de Paris, Paris

Outstanding Costume Design
Elena Zaitseva
Prins Igor, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam

Outstanding Lighting Design
Ulrich Niepel
Götterdämmerung, Deutche Oper, Berlin

Once again, thank you to all!

^ links to reviews not penned by myself

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The meditative and joyous shine effectively in Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's Messiah: Herald Sun Review

Widely known and performed the world over, Handel's magnificent Messiah (though originally intended to be performed at Easter), has become synonymous with Christmas. Religiously inclined or not, the Messiah symbolises love and its timelessness continues to inform modern society with its voice of hope.

On Saturday evening, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra generously shared the work's affirmative essence, sung to scriptural text arranged by Charles Jennens and given an incisive and graceful interpretation under conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini. Eschewing any hint of pomposity, the meditative and joyous emerged effectively from the comforting regimental punctuated rhythms and underlying exuberance that characterised the musicianship of the near 50 players. Overall, a greater sense of musical breathing and elasticity was achieved in parts two and three.

Embedded is that great swell of glory in the "Hallelujah" chorus that closes the second part. And it soared divinely. As the champions of the stage, numbering 60 and expertly prepared by Warren Trevelyan-Jones, the MSO Chorus impressed with their dexterity and interconnectivity, the sopranos particularly shining with crystal cut class. What was otherwise given an all-important focus on clear diction overall, a light rawness at times, however, came from the male chorus.

Amongst the four strong soloists who added weight to the score's operatic signature, despite variability in projection, two thrilling highlights of the night included the strident and authoritative opening from muscular and youthful-voiced British tenor Ed Lyon with "Ev'ry valley" and an enriched and profoundly affecting "He was despised" from the brooding and velvety mezzo-soprano Joslyn Rechter. Lyon especially appeared assured and consistent throughout, the later "Thou shalt break them" delivered with suave soldierly urgency.

Starry bright soprano Sara Macliver put to eerily appropriate use her porcelain-fine top range in "Rejoice greatly" and Italian bass Salvo Vitale brought rich and succulent vigour to his "Thus saith the Lord" but rather let sag the regality and depth of “The trumpet shall sound”.

Just to add, without pointing the finger, soloists looking fully engaged with the moment when not singing assist greatly in creating a more visually satisfying experience. A small quibble because by the time the chorus sang the mighty closing “Worthy is the Lamb” and final tidal "Amen" the ebullience etched itself majestically, making an approaching Christmas so much more potent than all the tinsel and baubles decorating the city.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
9th & 10th December
3.5 stars

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A strong and committed cast but Pinchgut Opera's reimagined The Coronation of Poppea misses its potential.

Making opera contemporarily relevant is at the forefront of pretty much any opera company today wishing to promote and vivify the art form. More easily able than many, Claudio Monteverdi's final opera, The Coronation of Poppea - premiered some 375 years ago - remains acutely relevant today and survives as a potent example of drama that simmers, boils, confronts and intrigues in its story of lust for power, sexual obsessions and ruthless dominance. In Pinchgut Opera's new production directed by Mark Gaal, wonderfully sung and boldly conceived as it is, attempts to reimagine the story's ancient Rome setting in a modern day context don't, however, always pay off so convincingly.

Helen Sherman and Jake Arditti
Power struggles, manipulative tactics and corruption exist in all spheres and levels of society but Gaal's interpretation creates an unpalatable friction and raises question marks over Giovanni Busenello's libretto - sung in Italian and surtitled in an eloquent English translation at odds with what is seen on stage.

Monteverdi's work is a sensational account of the Roman emperor Nero’s (Jake Arditti) abuse of position and blind pursuit of love for his mistress Poppea (Helen Sherman). Poppea's ambitions of power aggravate the Empress Ottavia (Natalie Christie Peluso) who is gravely aware of the vulnerable position she is in and who counteracts with a scheme to have Poppea disposed of. Woven through, the goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, vie for supremacy.

Here, a mighty hip and bleached-haired Nero takes on the aura of a teen pop star mixed up in a life of sex, drugs and violence. Surrounded by his hoodlum mates who roam the confines of a stark, often coldly lit, concreted world (sets by Charles Davis and lighting by Ross Graham), it seems a confused take on the work's adaptational potential.

As Nero, Jake Arditti exhibits much colour and lightning flashes of dynamism with his rich and lively countertenor. And there's much happening to excite him in the process. Soon after Nero makes his entrance with a hooker-like, dangerous-looking Poppea, he knocks down a man, who Poppea straddles, then crawls across him seductively to remove his belt from under Poppea's loins. Later, partying and cocaine-fixed after ordering the death of his philosophising adviser Seneca, Nero is pleasurably sucked off by one of his men during which I don't recall what the music was doing. Gaal certainly highlights Nero's salacious pleasures yet Nero doesn't cut the figure of authority as the Roman emperor in the text reads.

Natalie Christie Peluso
The luscious, full-bodied mezzo-soprano of Helen Sherman gives a striking, attractively hued and phrased voice to Poppea. What begins as a grungy windowless world oddly becomes a glitzy fashionable one by end with Poppea making a surprise transformation into what looked like a celebrity model for a pageant coronation. Sherman stepped into the limelight radiantly for the opera's final melting duet with Arditti - "Pur ti miro/Pur ti godo" - in their only tender and restrained encounter without groping each other and, while doing so, paired lusciously in voice. Nero had secured his beauty and Poppea her position, precarious as that would be.

Perhaps if the libretto was completely reworked to reflect the characters portrayed, a more easy coexistence of drama, setting and text would have resulted. In this setting, I was seeing one possibility taking a topical Weinstein-like approach concerning alleged abuse of power and women which life is never short of.

Thankfully, Arditti and Sherman are part of a strong and committed cast that provide the propulsion needed. Smouldering baritone David Greco's vocal heft makes a notably firm standout as Seneca with his inviting and authoritative performance and ornamental touches that waft in precisely placed curls. Excitingly animated tenor Kanen Breen - indisputably shaping up as one of Australia's hottest theatrical talents - struts with towering height, form and delectable knowingness and confidence as a transvestite Arnalta, Poppea's subordinate and confidante.

Natalie Christie Peluso is another solid link as she spectacularly delineates the two widely contrasting roles - the venomous and vengeful Ottavia and more reserved, alarmingly naive Drusilla - to which her dark and expressively charged soprano she employs for Ottavia is brightened and softened as she portrays Drusilla. Countertenor Owen Willetts comfortably conveyed the passions and turns of the swooning Ottone who is in love with Ottavia in leaps of rich and fleshy warmth.

Kanen Breen as Arnalta
In the twin smaller roles as Seneca's friend Famigliari III (likely a little more than a friend) and Tribuno, bass baritone Jeremy Kleeman's resonating and firm vocal presence are an ear-catching luxury, as is Roberta Diamond's delightfully sweet soprano that emanates from her fallen-on-hard-times Amore as she follows love's triumph when least it is deserved and highlighting how love doesn't always behave.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes didn't carry through with the force and conviction of their usual breathtakingly layered textures on opening night. A few misses didn't escape notice, including some late shaky trumpeting, but the several open orchestral passages were consistently realised in top form. Conducting from harpsichord, overall, Artistic Director Erin Helyard's mixed and effective tempi provided ongoing momentum, more so in the second part but I couldn't help but feel that the music often seemed overtaken by an indulgent interpretation that attempts to make the story's relevance feel real but, instead, strangled it in theatrical melange.

The Coronation of Poppea
Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 6th December.

Production photos: Brett Boardman

Friday, November 17, 2017

Opera Australia's The Merry Widow opens with a clear emphasis on razzmattazz in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review
Published online at Herald Sun on 16th November and in print 17th November, 2017.

On this especially festive-like evening when the country voted #YES Opera Australia’s new production of Franz Lehár’s effervescent 1905 operetta, The Merry Widow, seemed the perfect compliment to open the spring season.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna in Opera Australia's The Merry Widow
Directed and choreographed with endless razzmatazz by Graeme Murphy and moved a smidgen ahead to the 1920s, it’s a glitzy Art Deco spectacle that frames the story of rags-to-riches young widow, Hanna Glawari. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish sets and Jennifer Irwin’s haute couture fashions are, at the very least, testament to the remarkable artisans behind the scenes.

Hanna’s millions are the fictitious Grand Duchy of Pontevedro’s only hope of escape from bankruptcy but she’s kicking up her heels in Paris to a chorus of swooning hopefuls. Will former lover Danilo, living it up his own way at Maxim’s, pluck up the courage to say “I love you” and overcome the pride that keeps him from marrying Hanna for her money? Personalities might be bruised but tragedy is avoided.

A large cast and intricate intrigues keep the plot afloat despite the cross-section of messy accents and high melodrama. Justin Fleming’s new English translation is interpreted with bawdiness over the scandalous on a canvas more brash New York than elegant Paris. It’s fun but the innuendos begin to tire and the razzle-dazzle often overwhelms character sculpting.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna with the grizettes in The Merry Widow
We also no longer have the great Joan Sutherland on hand to sing her Hanna and the nostalgic ‘Pontevedrian’ folk song Vilja but, as a world-class opera company, why the patchily balanced miking? Internationally acclaimed soprano Danielle de Niese’s much-anticipated return to Melbourne was highly compromised, taking the spotlight more for her vivacious dancing, from waltz to cancan, than hearing her gorgeously smooth and luminous voice. Alexander Lewis, as the vacillating Danilo, pairs splendidly with de Niese, his golden tone put to superb use at the top notes. Soaring in the subplot, rich tenor John Longmuir is the big standout as lovestruck Camille among voices that generally sat below the company’s usual excellent standards on opening night.

Orchestra Victoria impressed under Vanessa Scammell’s persuasive conducting and, #YES, the stage celebrated at curtain call.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 25th November

3 -stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, November 12, 2017

From Melbourne Opera, intellectual and visceral strength greet the long overdue Australian premiere of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux

Make no bones about it, as an independent company that receives no government funding, Melbourne Opera's 2017 season has delivered a degree of consistency and excellence that places it firmly amongst the city's well-funded cultural institutions. First, it was a jolly good HMS Pinafore in March. Then, a riveting Lohengrin followed in August that demonstrated an increasing ambitiousness that now comes with proven flexibility. Finally, on Saturday evening, Melbourne Opera capped off the year with a rave-worthy production of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, in its long overdue Australian premiere, to complete the company's study of the composer's Tudor trilogy. Directed by Suzanne Chaundy, who likewise directed Maria Stuarda in 2015 and Anna Bolena in 2016, what is evident is a ripened sense of detail and quality that surpasses the former two works with both its intellectual and visceral strength.

Helena Dix as Elizabeth I in Act 3 of Roberto Devereux
If it wasn't for the high standard of vocal output, the retina-stimulating force of the sumptuous period-inspired costumes by Jenny Tate (on loan from the Opera Australia wardrobe) might have overwhelmed. Even with the same aesthetic employed in the previous two works, Christina Logan-Bell's effective and beautifully crafted design that features the Tudor rose motif and Lucy Birkinshaw's evocative lighting made for an even more eye-catching setting that pushes towards a vividly stylised hyper-realism and compliments a story that pushes history's boundaries of truth.

Embroiling emotional sentiments with political judgement, an ageing, unmarried and vain Queen Elizabeth I has cemented her status as a monarch but cannot conceal her frustration as a woman, spurned by her 'favourite', a man a third her age, Robert, Earl of Essex.

When I saw Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sing the taxing role of Elizabeth at New York's Metropolitan Opera, she was hailed with huge and deserved applause. I ruminated. As her understudy, how would Australian-born Helena Dix have navigated the role, one resplendent with the thrilling ornamented singing that characterises the bel canto repertoire?

Helena Dix as Elizabeth and Henry Choo as Robert
Melbourne now has the evidence of Dix's grandeur. In a performance that is interpreted with not only vocal prowess but done so all the way down to the fingertips, local audiences are further acquainted with Dix's formidable stage presence and dramatic capability after impressing as Elsa in Lohengrin. Dix imbues Elizabeth with wealthy helpings of character without limiting her to the dismissive hand of imperiousness. A cheeky flirtatious tickle of a squire's beard as she makes her entrance in the Great Hall at Westminster, a girlish self-consciousness with the arrival of Robert and her often temperamental swings establish a firm portrait inbuilt with ageless emotional identity and ageing physical form.

Of her vocal exhibition, Dix locked together a dazzling spectrum of expression from sweet musings to defiance and ultimate despair with seemingly effortless and arabesque melodic turns. Sung in English, there was nowhere to look but at a queen reigning over the stage. And it's not often you hear coloratura that contains bursts of character and meaning that drive the drama rather than simply providing exciting vocal fireworks - and an audience that engagingly responds to it on the way.

Henry Choo as Robert & Danielle Calder as Sara
Alongside Dix, more familiar faces at Melbourne Opera honoured her presence in some of their best performances yet, delivering both compelling acting and singing. Fighting off charges of treason as Robert in the titular role, increasingly charismatic tenor Henry Choo reinforces the complex dynamics in his character's liaisons and presents a passionate, sturdy and full-bodied vocal vehicle that is polished with conviction. Choo's diction is superb, adding great appeal to his performance and his various duets are well-calibrated but it's in his final scene, as Robert awaits execution, where raw emotion escapes in one of the night's poignant highlights.

With her privileged position, noble femininity and pure top notes, creamy mezzo-soprano Danielle Calder is exquisite as Sara, Robert's lover and the queen's rival. Warm baritone Phillip Calcagno journeys through his initial backing for his friend Robert and subsequent betrayal by his wife Sara with focused and natural step as the Duke of Nottingham. In minor roles, Jason Wasley and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i add a tier of sound support as Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh respectively. Gorgeously harmonised with a spring in delivery, a well-prepared Melbourne Opera Chorus light the evening splendidly despite their sometimes incomprehensible content.

It takes a while acclimatising to the Athenaeum's dry acoustic but, apart from an occasional blemish, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra made a fine soundscape, conducted with vigour by Greg Hocking. Once the perplexing overture is over, Donizetti's wonderful dramatic momentum and transitions take flight. Of note, Act 3's opening string playing produced a breathtaking introduction to Robert's isolation and the timpani and piccolo always amazed with their well-executed presence.

Melbourne Opera's year is almost over and the signposts point towards potentially even greater rewards for its artists and audience in 2018. It's time our government recognises that too.

Roberto Devereux
Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 18th October, 2017

Production photos: Robin Halls

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Australian Brandenberg Orchestra's musically engaging and curious three-course early opera selection

Kudos to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra for their 2017 season programming which included a stage-directed production of Handel's Messiah in February and for having just concluded a run of seven performances in Sydney and Melbourne of three contrasting early operatic works that came under the title Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach. Created in a pastiche-like manner by Artistic Director Paul Dyer, Bittersweet Obsessions courses through a lament, a tragedy and a comedy via Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, followed by J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata.

Jakob Bloch Jespersen as Tancredi and Natasha Wilson as Cloirinda
The final performance which I attended was propelled by a team of strong international singers who appeared in various roles - soprano Natasha Wilson from New Zealand, tenors American Karim Sulayman and Australian Spencer Darby, and Danish bass Jakob Bloch Jespersen. Each 'scene' was preceded by period pieces that presumably aimed to seam the three works together, all demonstrating the high quality musicianship and warm musical fabric the orchestra achieves. Dyer conducted from harpsichord and organ with notable regard for his soloists before him.

Kapsberger's Toccata Arpeggiata set the atmosphere going in Scene I with its eerie and tumultuous shades to introduce the brief snapshot that Lamento della Ninfa gives on a nymph's distress after being betrayed by her lover. In a billowing white gown, Wilson brought a poignancy to the sighing melodies with her attractive, smooth and relaxed soprano. As shepherds, Sulayman, Darby and Bloch Jespersen added distinctive harmony in their interjections and observances as they all passed through a pastoral setting that consisted of a field of wheat backed by a lofty, full-height copy of Claude Lorrain's pastoral scene, Ascanius Shooting The Stag of Sylvia.

Deliciously evocative without overwhelming, Charlotte Mungomery's design, Genevieve Graham's appropriately delineated costumes and John Rayment's subdued lighting set a striking start under Constantine Costi's perfectly sensitive direction.

The gloriously featured zipping violins and strummed backing of Falconieri's lively Ciaccona, followed by a dignified interpretation of Monteverdi's overture from Il Ritorno d'Ulisse In Patria, opened Scene II's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda thrillingly. Claude Lorrain's tranquil setting fell to reveal a tri-level scaffolded structure. On it, the inconceivable and bitter tragedy of Clorinda's death in combat by her lover Tancredi was played out in slow-gestured stylistic movement and magnified more physically by aikido performers Andrew Sunter and Melanie Lindenthal on the (wheat)field of battle. Again, the creative and visual effect cut through splendidly, with Clorinda's death, marked by a cascading cloth of blood-red fabric from high, a particularly powerful moment that proceeded the punctuated metallic clash of swords that percussionist Adam Cooper-Stanbury reproduced wonderfully amongst many other detailed sound effects.

Bloch Jespersen was firm, robust and commanding as the Christian knight Tancredi with Wilson's ethereal and fine glassy soprano echoing the story's haunting ominousness. But it was Sulayman who sang the major part as Testo (the Text) the narrator, done so with passion and conviction but with most assuredness and warmth in moderate-paced passages.

After interval, Bach's comic Coffee Cantata, on the other hand, arrived in Scene III as a somewhat curious anomaly to the deftly resolved Monteverdi works. Opening the scene and though captivatingly played - concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen illuminated the florid lines superbly on violin - the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 4 seemed to break the spell cast by the first two scenes with its widely familiar tune.

K. Sulayman, J. Bloch Jespersen and N. Wilson in Coffee Cantata
Familiarity also appeared with the stage transformed into a trendy cafe run by a hipster barista who Sulayman added a little campness to. The lightness edged on the side of the ridiculous with Coffee Cantata becoming an exaggerated and over-acted distraction, as if buzzing with an excess of caffeine. Based around the young woman Liechen's addiction to coffee and what she's prepared to do without in order to have it, it was difficult working out how her flapping fur-coated, selfie-snapping behaviour belonged there.

As a spoiled, inelegant and recalcitrant Liechen, Wilson nonetheless demonstrated the range, flexibility and shading of her soprano beautifully. At ease in her comic skin, Wilson's melodic sweetness soared delectably in her central aria, "Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee susse" / Ah! how sweet coffee tastes" as if seemingly fed by the numerous spoonfuls of sugar she took. In between the need for a nicotine fix to calm his see-sawing parenting, Bloch Jespersen sang firmly as her unfortunate father Schlendrian. Dyer fuelled the music with a liveliness that the orchestra played with great appeal and depth.

More like three district tableaux - touching, entertaining and musically engaging as the evening was - Bittersweet Obsessions was advertised with the expectation of "three timeless tales that follow one woman’s journey through the bitter and sweet of life". That was always going to be a decent challenge to overcome. It was more a case of the one woman, in this case soprano Natasha Wilson, embodying three distinct characters on her own operatic journey. Still, the vivid theatrical portrayal and overall interpretation was a welcome addition to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's repertoire and a feature that the stage will hopefully be utilised for again.

Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
City Recital Hall, Sydney
25th October - 1st November 2017
Melbourne Recital Centre
4th & 5th November 2017

Production photos:

Sunday, October 29, 2017

An energised and entertaining show but love at first sight doesn't quite gel in The Production Company's Brigadoon

Heading into its 20th year, The Production Company have been nurturing local musical theatre talent and bringing Broadway entertainment to the stage in consistent sparkling form. In this year's final production of the season, the company's characteristic verve and high standards similarly shone in Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe's (music) 1947 romantic fantasy, Brigadoon. But something prevented me from feeling completely absorbed by its quaint frothy tale despite director Jason Langley's fresh update, Cameron Mitchell's exhilarating choreography and musical director Michael Tyack's vivacious reign over the gorgeous music-making from the 21-member orchestra.

Genevieve Kingsford as Fiona and cast of Brigadoon
For modern eyes, it's probably unsurprising that everyone seemed a little odd in Brigadoon, the mystical Scottish village that reawakens and appears once every 100 years for just one day. In its story -  from the creative duo who went on to pen Gigi, My Fair Lady and Camelot - adventurous New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Rohan Browne) and Jeff Douglas (Luke Joslin) first seem to think so when they stumble on this quirky village in the Scottish Highlands stuck in another time. From afar, at least from my perspective in the dress circle, Fiona MacLaren (Genevieve Kingsford) might seem its oddest, the pretty village maiden who zooms in on Tommy in a love-at-first-sight encounter.

If we are to believe in love at first sight's inexplicability, I wanted to believe that there's credibility to its magic on stage. Lerner's book wastes no time in setting the scene but falling desperately in love is different to looking hopelessly desperate, which we see in Kingsford's portrayal. Was I taking it far too seriously in this lighthearted escape fuelled mainly by good helpings of comic charm and adrenalised action? I don't think so because believing that Fiona and Tommy's relationship is completely based on love forms the core of the story, not on some ulterior motive which appears to permeate through Fiona's desperation. If that was unequivocally established, the comedy could run with abandon.

Garishly bright-orange-wigged, Kingsford is a talented and magnetic artist to watch and she sang with a rich and attractive sound on opening night, though there were times the top of the voice lost shape at full power. Browne's was a passionate and sensitive portrayal of Tommy, a handsome and modern metrosexual who he gave an impressive sunshiny timbre to. In duet with Kingsford, Tommy and Fiona shared a superbly sweetened interpretation of Act 1's "The Heather on The Hill" but the most vocally seductive and poignant moment the pair melted together in was to come in Act 2's "From This Day On", when Tommy decides he needs to leave Brigadoon.

Nancye Hayes, Genevieve Kingsford and Rohan Browne
In entertaining and cracking comic form, Joslin drew many a genuine laugh playing the laid back and jokester Jeff and made a memorable moment of his disinterest in the largely embraced village strumpet, Meg. Depicting her, suitably voluptuous-voiced Elise McCann gave an unashamed dazzling sauciness and polished up the melodious pair of songs, Act 1's "The Love Of My Life" and Act 2's "My Mother's Wedding Day", with exceptional appeal.

There was not only Fiona's one-eyed desperation and Meg's looseness, but also Maggie's (Karla Tonkich) creepy obsession with Harry and Tommy's blonde and shallow socialite New York fiancé, Miranda Ashton (Adele Parkinson). I couldn't get the solid supply of pretty young faces but unflattering female portraits hanging in the show's gallery out of my mind. If you're older and made up to be plainer, you get a little more substance and two of Australia's esteemed musical theatre performers made certain of that. Sally Bourne gave warmhearted and imposing presence to Fiona's mother Alice and Nancye Hayes was both commanding and approachable as the village matriarch Mrs Forsythe, who Langley gives clever elevation to by replacing her with the original book's schoolmaster Mr. Lundie.

Other excellent performances came from Matthew Manahan as the excitable bridegroom Charlie and his bonny bride Jean, Fiona's sister, Stefanie Jones. Young talented artist Joel Granger shaded the work enormously as the disturbed Harry and the well-experienced Stephen Hall was strong and expressive in the role as his father Archie Beaton.

Luke Joslin as Jeff and Elise McCann as Meg
The ensemble singing was driven with gusto, occasionally overly so, and the dance routines were a series of energised spectacles - Act 1's Sword Dance and Reel and Act 2's Chase, representative of both the traditional and cheesy. Then there was Browne's streamlined moonwalking dance steps to provide contrast. And the solemnity of Harry's funeral with bagpipe accompaniment was heart wrenching. A seat in the stalls would be preferable. From above, the stage can look a tad bare.

At first I was perplexed by the sky-full of crosses that hung above the stage as part of designer Christina Smith's simple and effective set. Then it dawned on me - to protect Brigadoon from being changed by the outside world. It also added an eeriness that is further sensed in the wooden stepped structure in the town's square, a platform that supports the wedding celebration as easily as it could the gallows. Isaac Lummis' costumes are delineated in a thoughtfully detailed spread of colour and Matt Scott's extensive lighting palette captured the various moods wonderfully.

As the wise Mrs Forsythe says, "When you love someone deeply, anything is possible." And as Brigadoon presents it, that can be both a celebration (for Tommy and Fiona) and a curse (as befalls Harry). The appeal of Langley's production is that even when the buzzing entertainment is over, it leaves a little left over to ponder.

The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 5th November.

Production photos: Jeff Busby

A splendid evening showcasing young operatic talent in The Herald Sun Aria Final: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun on 26th October and in print on 27th October, 2017

In a splendid evening presided over by informative and jocular MC, Christopher Lawrence of ABC Classic FM, the diversity, expression and beauty of the classical voice shone brightly at the 93rd Herald Sun Aria final. For the distinguished panel Richard Mills, Roxane Hislop and Suzanne Johnston, judging the five finalists wasn’t an easy task. Mills rightly pointed out that they’re all winners and the competition is part of the ongoing journey.

Countertenor Maximillian Riebl
For countertenor Maximilian Riebl, that journey is now injected with added prestige of joining celebrated winners that include Kiri Te Kanawa and Nicole Car.

Riebl opened the competition strong, poised like an athlete for “Dove sei, amato bene?” from Handel’s Rodelinda. Riebl brought an affecting and contemplative interpretation with the mesmerising sound of the sustained and perilously high falsetto, his voice a generously buttressed one, effortlessly smooth and firm at the top.

Four other finalists followed, each singing one aria in the first part of the program and, in the same order, presenting a second in part two.

Agile tenor Michael Petruccelli’s “È un folle, e un vile affetto” from Handel’s Alcina came intelligently structured with heartfelt passion and attractive shading. Warm baritone Raphael Wong’s lively animation of the famous “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, dexterous as it was, sadly had timing issues. Lone female, luscious soprano Olivia Cranwell, took to the stage like a ship’s figurehead, surging ahead of the orchestra and ornamenting “Pleurez! pleurez mes yeux!” from Massenet’s Le Cid with exquisite delicacy, an outstanding rendition that would take her to runner up. Then, bright tenor Shanul Sharma displayed all the fireworks of the fair with aplomb that Rossini so skilfully scribed in “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” from La Cenerentola.

M. Petrucelli, S. Sharma, M. Riebl, O. Cranwell and R.Wong
However, it was the consistency in Riebl’s composed delivery, technical expertise and natural expressivity that won him the trophy. In Riebl’s second aria, “Venga pur, minacci e frema” from Mozart’s Mitridate, the adrenaline rushed with virility and force together with flexing coloratura and superbly disguised breathing. Riebl’s was an honest performance, fine-grained, without flamboyance.

Petruccelli’s well-contrasted aria was a touching and assured “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Cutting through the orchestra, Cranwell’s immersion into Puccini’s lucent “On bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly emitted a focused intensity.

Wong acquitted himself remarkably with a deliciously smooth and suitably selected “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. And standing by Rossini’s melodic whizzes, including a degree of difficulty of 10 High Cs, Sharma shook “Asile héréditaire ... Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance” from Guillaume Tell with forthrightness to take a well-deserved encouragement award.

On the whole, a dashing Orchestra Victoria supported the finalists admirably with maestro Mills doubling as conductor — attentions might have been divided on that front. While the judges deliberated, two young guest artists, pianist Hannah Shin and cellist Vincent Wang charmed with their virtuosic playing. It was, all in all, a night to celebrate the talents that nurture our opera future.

Herald Sun Aria Final
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
25th October 217


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Director Penny Woolcock's brilliantly contemporised interpretation of The Pearl Fishers comes to LA Opera

After an initial 18-performance run at Paris' Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) never saw the stage again until 1886. Though it has entered the repertoire since, it was only performed for the first time in 100 years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last year. It is this production, by British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, that LA Opera is currently presenting on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The production was created for English National Opera and it makes a fine and welcome case for Bizet's lesser known work getting exposure today.

Alfredo Daza as Zurga, Nino Machaidze as Leïla and LA Opera Chorus
For the most part, the work is presented as a lush curio that gives directors and designers license to delve into Asian exoticism, often overly glamourised and generally far removed from our time. But Woolcock's version is a brilliantly contemporised and inventive interpretation of its story - one that centres on the bonds of friendship, love and loyalty - and it comes with refreshing directness and realism. Woolcock's sharp cinematic eye is evident from the moment the dreamily atmospheric overture plays. The entire stage is a cross-section of a deep blue sea in which three divers, the pearl fishers, swim through in a sensationally choreographed aerialist display that unsurprisngly brought applause. 

The setting (formerly Ceylon) is a little Sri Lankan village sitting vulnerably, as the circumstances are, at the edge of the water - poor, shanty-like and buzzing with its locals in spice-coloured costumes under a mostly inky sky (set designer Dick Bird, costumes by Kevin Pollard and lighting by Jen Schriever). The overall effect is masterful and adaptable in its scene changes. Of question, however, is the way how Woolcock turns Act 2's storm scene into a rogue tsunami reminiscent of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that would wipe out such a village. From there, projections of the disaster's aftermath mark scene changes (and they are lengthy) that are more detrimental in effect than being relevant on her otherwise insightful storytelling. On that front, Woolcock draws a wonderful picture of believable performances from her cast.

The story focuses on a friendship put to the test between Zurga and Nadir, who are both in love with the priestess Leila. She has sworn an oath of chastity as part of a religious ritual in order to protect the pearl divers, but weakens when Nadir’s arrival inflames her desires. 

Alfredo Daza as Zurga and Javier Camarena as Nadir
Bizet's scoring is sensitive, mature and gorgeously threaded but it is the opera's duet between Zurga and Nadir in Act I, "Au fond du temple saint”, that is its most well-known part. An impressive-voiced pair, Javier Camarena (Nadir) and Alfredo Daza (Zurga) made the duet a poignant highlight as they explored their character's friendship and tension, first singing apart before coming together to join in song as comrades wounded by a hint of uncertainty in their encounter. Camarena displayed much to impress in both his role and house debut, his warm and glimmering tenor on show and power when needed. Daza's striking presence, handsomely dark-hued and resonant baritone perfectly matched the command he exhibited as leader. With it came the dramatic interpretation and an underlying suspicion he layered on his character, coming to a climactic highlight in Act 3's opening as Zurga see-saws from remorse to jealousy. 

It's the role of Leïla that has the most taxing music and soprano Nino Machaidze, a regular and much-loved artist at LA Opera, made it divine. Machaidze brought to Leïla a beautifully poised demeanour and a devastatingly well-calibrated and touching performance as a 21st century woman sacrificing her freedom under religious demands in a male-dominated society. In Machaidze's genuinely felt rendition, sung with both spoonfuls of purity and magnetic resolve, Leïla has never been so relevantly portrayed. 
Nino Machaidze as Leïla
Big-brewing bass baritone Nicholas Brownlee gave a dignified performance as Nourabad, the humble high priest of Brahma. The chorus of fishermen, townsfolk, priests and priestesses didn't always harmonise to the excellent standards that audiences are accustomed to at LA Opera, but they still did a fine job, more so the ladies, and they certainly detailed their acting like they knew what's required of them for a Hollywood screen test.

For this matinee performance, Plácido Domingo took the baton up after only having taken the title role of Nabucco by the horns in the previous evening's opening night. There seems no stopping this maestro's tireless pursuits. Musically, Domingo issued the score with superbly balanced weight and energetic thrust in company with precision playing from the LA Opera Orchestra.

If The Pearl Fishers isn't amongst one of your favourite operas, this Penny Woolcock production, so gorgeously realised and sung, will likely change that.

The Pearl Fishers
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 28th October.

Production photos: Ken Howard

Anna Netrebko stops by in Melbourne as a worthy queen of the stage: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Melbourne's Herald Sun, 19th October, and in print 20th October 2017.

Opera lovers around the globe are finally having the privilege of seeing today’s most celebrated diva in live performance on their stages. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is sharing her gift of voice on a current concert tour in between a demanding schedule at the world’s leading opera houses. It was Melbourne’s fortune last night when the glamorous superstar of opera graced the Hamer Hall stage. Netrebko was radiant, in outstanding form and riveting to watch from the start.

Elchin Azizov, Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov at Hamer Hall
On entrance, Netrebko was all smiles before plunging into Verdi’s turbulent aria of conflicting feelings from Aida, "Ritorna vincitor!" And victorious she was! Demonstrating mesmerising flexibility, it was not only her rich tone, lustrous finish and soaring top that impressed. Making full use of the stage, Netrebko conveyed her character with power and commitment.

Singing a comprehensive and balanced program of mostly Italian opera excerpts, Netrebko dazzled from one to the next with works that reflected not only the more dramatic quality and broadening of the voice, such as a poignant aria from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, but the lighter, more melodic style she illuminated in "Stridono lassù" from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Netrebko’s effortless control and comfortable presence continued, shining with ethereal and crystalline beauty in Dvořák’s "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka.

But Netrebko wasn’t alone, sharing the limelight with husband Yusif Eyvazov — he is an increasingly successful tenor in his own right and impressing immensely with his toasty, passionate and voluminous Italianate sound. First came a nobly rendered aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore, later a knockout "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini’s Tosca — to which he signed his own robust signature on — then a gripping and impassioned "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci. Alongside his wife, the chemistry palpable, their embrace and kiss added melting expression to Verdi’s "Già nella notte densa" from Verdi’s Otello.

Yusif Eyvazov, Anna Netrebko and Mikhail Tatarnikov
Surprise entry and guest artist Elchin Azizov added to the celebratory three-way mix, his smouldering and firmly buttressed baritone evident. Azizov paired with Eyvazov in a stridently militant duet from Verdi’s Don Carlos, then joined with Netrebko for a romantic, waltzing start to the second half with "Lippen schweigen" from Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

Warm and affectionate, Netrebko shared her enthusiasm all around. Behind her but always acknowledged, the Opera Australia Orchestra sounded glorious in this rare emergence from the pit with exuberant conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov at the helm. Employing spirited tempi, the orchestra responded with layers of plush and relentlessly magnificent orchestral detail.

But it was Netrebko who reigned, matching the ticket prices with a superlative evening that was worthy of her crowned status. In an operatic escapade around some of opera’s best-known arias and duets with a stop by a few lesser-known ones, Melbourne will be begging for more.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov
An Evening of Opera Highlights
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
18th October 2017


Production photos: Brett Schewitz

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A splendidly realised contextual exploration of Verdi's Nabucco at LA Opera

First, there was the inexhaustible champion of opera, Plácido Domingo, taking on the title role. Adding to that, the powerhouse Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska made a sensational house debut as Abigaille. Under James Conlon's fervent conducting, the music utterly soared and, to tantalise, a resplendent feast for the eyes came courtesy of director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger - LA Opera's new production of Verdi's Nabucco opened on Saturday with an array of outstanding attributes to win the audience's favour.

Plácido Domingo as Nabucco
The production comes via Washington National Opera, where it premiered in 2012 with later seasons at Minnesota Opera and Opera Philadelphia. It also came with an interesting twist. Strassberger has created a novel historical inset that uses the work's 1842 premiere at Milan's Teatro alla Scala as a point of reference in the presentation of its biblical story of religious tensions within which a complicated love triangle boils through.

While a few details in the historical facts are condensed and brushed over in Temistocle Solera's libretto, accompanied by Verdi's grand and tempestuous score, it became a symbol of Italy's subjugation under Austrian rule and a small ingredient that reflected the push towards Italy's unification. Rapturously received, Strassberger uses its perceived political undertones by placing his modern audience in the context of a 'reimagined' Milanese premiere at which distinguished foreign aristocrats in the audience watch on while a group of military soldiers, observed on stage at the beginning of every act, are at the ready should trouble emerge. It eventually does.

Monastyrska couldn't resist a condescending glance directed to her little well-heeled audience during her performance. Then, what came as a huge surprise to the actual opening night Los Angeles audience following the curtain call, there was a rousing uptake of the opera's most famous chorus number, “Va, pensiero", started by one voice, picked up across the stage, then open for all of us to sing. "Viva Verdi" bloomed on stage and the soldiers weren't happy. In its time, encores were not permissible by the Austrian authorities. But, regardless of the circumstances, the ingenuity of Strassberger's contextual exploration lies in how he uses Nabucco to press upon theatre's role in stirring political and social change. On the whole, Strassberger carries the concept off with an intriguing perspective and in impressive style, notwithstanding Act 3's embedded "Va, pensiero" being presented as a backstage view that unnecessarily interrupts its course.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille
A three-tiered slice of La Scala edges the Dorothy Chandler proscenium, looking into each of the exquisitely detailed flats and backdrops that depict an architecture of impressive proportion, beginning with the striking coffered ceilings and weighty carved columns of Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon. Mattie Ullrich's eye-catching costumes display reams of vivid colour for the Assyrians with the Hebrews robed in creamy white, all of which glow evocatively under Mark McCullough's lighting design to give it the wonder of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, though with much less action.

Just as impressive were the individual performances on opening night. Tenor turned baritone Plácido Domingo never ceases to amaze (following opening night he conducted a matinee of The Pearlfishers). When Domingo made his first appearance well into the first act with his warriors, he arrived with a voice that rang with both firm authority and beguiling freshness. In previous baritone roles at LA Opera such as Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth and Athanaël in Massenet's Thaïs, Domingo's masterful technique, intelligently shaded expressivity and staying power excelled.

Domingo was similarly impressive as Nabucco, the King of Babylon. Being amongst the finest operatic actors to watch, Domingo coloured his character's emotional range with conviction and subtlety, from stern leader to demented self-proclaimed god, a miraculous return to reason and subsequent conversion to Judaism. As Nabucco's introspection intensified, Domingo oozed with natural warmth, culminating in Act 4's splendidly sung prayer, "Dio di Giuda". If there was just a little of something needing in Domingo's performance, it was a desire for greater consistency when projecting thrilling power which happened to waver on occasion.

Morris Robinson as Zaccaria with LA Opera Chorus
That proved no issue for Liudmyla Monastyrska as Nabucco's illegitimate daughter of slave blood, Abigaille. Making a macabre entrance wielding a sword and slaying a Hebrew, Monastyrska also wielded a vocal instrument with hair-raising volcanic force and impressively nuanced expression. Contrasting fire and ice combined with a delicious, deep lustre, evenly edged top notes and plunges to a meaty low range, Monastyrska commanded the stage from the start. The vocal dynamics of Act 2's "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno" were especially outstanding and on full display as Abigaille first discovers the document that reveals her slave bloodline before blazing into "Salgo già del trono aurato" with her determination to seize the crown.

Strong resonating bass Morris Robinson was coercive as the high priest of the Hebrews, Zaccaria, his Act 2 prayer to god for the Assyrians to find their way to Jehovah in "Tu sul labbro" interpreted with a smoothly arching vocal beauty. In the face of her dominant sister, lush mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera gleamed consistently as Nabucco's true daughter Fenena. As Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and together in love with Fenena, tenor Mario Chang, though complimenting her with appropriate warm-toned richness, faded in the lower seat of the voice. Gabriel Vamvulescu made solid work of a smaller role as the hunched over High Priest of Baal.

There are lashings of opportunity for Verdi's tremendous chorus work to take the spotlight but that didn't always translate into the hoped for dream of excellence - at times, the harmonies sounding underpowered and murky. The best came with a rousing Act 1 finale as the Israelites curse Ismaele and Act 4's "Immenso Jehova", leaving  “Va, pensiero" feeling soulful but lukewarm in comparison. In the pit, however, Conlon went to work enthusiastically and the adrenaline and variety of the score was realised with superb playing by the LA Opera Orchestra with some notably melting moments of brass.

If Verdi's Nabucco could rally its audience at its premiere, why not do so again? On show was more than enough splendour and expertise in Strassberger's Nabucco for an audience to willingly rise together in voice.

LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion , LA Music Centre
Until 19th November.

Production photos: courtesy of LA Opera

Melbourne Festival's Taylor Mac: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music (Chapter I: 1776-1836) - outrageously bawdy, sensory and highly pertinent

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, in edited form, 13th October 2017.

Imagine a drag queen born from the cosmos in an explosion of light and glittering colour. Then, imagine this being as an all-knowing disciple of the universe, arriving to bring enlightenment to a world wounded and suffering. Finally, imagine being transfixed by her aura, under her spell and converted by her message of love, inclusiveness and acceptance. This is Taylor Mac, creator, writer, performer, and codirector of A 24-Hour History of Popular Music, here as part of the Melbourne Festival.

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Chapter I
In an epic deconstruction of American history, 1776 to the present, Mac scrutinises a world of oppression and fear that obstructed and injured many as others exerted their superiority. Mac does this through songs of the period and an all-embracing charisma in an outrageously bawdy show that ignites the 'what were' and 'what ifs' in a wild ride.

It's 24 hours in length, spread across four six-hour chapters over four nights. Chapter I: 1776-1836 burst open in a ricochet of rich and raucous entertainment, at the heart of which community building is paramount, boundaries are expanded and normal is an alien concept. Not to worry if you're not familiar with American history, Mac makes it memorable, immediate, sensory and highly pertinent. To begin, a welcome exchange of gifts from local indigenous representative Aunty Di Kerr made certain it would be.

From the American Revolution to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, coursing through the early Woman's Lib and Temperance movements with a heteronormative narrative as colonisation, Mac bites into history and humanity. Song after song - with new arrangements by music director and pianist Matt Ray - is sung with absorbing power, inexhaustible energy and chameleon-voiced subtlety. Ray leads an exceptional band of 24 versatile musicians with one lost every hour.

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Chapter I
An ensemble of "Dandy Minions" weaves about with items including dress-ups to reimagine ourselves, pamphlets, apples, beer, ping pong balls, flowers, grapes and blindfolds that stir participation. At times you might feel lost (blindfolded for an hour, you are) or uncomfortable (that's ok too) and thirsty (there's a bar to head to) but Mac is always there if you need him as he changes from one wild costume to another, crowned with elaborate headdresses of tinsel, cork and feathers by costume designer Machine Dazzle.

From the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible in "Amazing Grace", Mac stamps impact on over 50 songs, some familiar, many not, all with purpose. There's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and an appearance by cabaret sensation Meow Meow in "10,000 Miles". Further along, there's the clash of puritanism with debauchery in "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes", a rousing "Shenandoah" from a beautifully harmonised chorus on the way to the moving Cherokee songs on the Trail of Tears as the colourful story of Harry, Jane and Louisa Maria is threaded until we reach a soaring rendition of "Banks of the Ohio".

By this point, you're never going to let anything stand in queer's way.

Taylor Mac: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music
Melbourne Festival
Forum Theatre
11th October 2017


Production Photos: Sarah Walker

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Adventure and enthusiasm aplenty in Victorian Opera's youth opera, The Second Hurricane

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, in edited form, 10th October, 2017.

Youth's adventurous spirit and boundless enthusiasm is on full display in Victorian Opera's latest production that nurtures the future of young singers as part of Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE).

Victorian Opera's VOYCE, The Second Hurricane
American composer Aaron Copland's The Second Hurricane, premiered in 1937 and written specifically as a youth opera, gives a compelling account of a group of six high school students who volunteer and fly off to aid victims of a hurricane. Avidity takes a turn as they become stranded with floodwaters rising around them but learn to resolve their differences and rally together after a second hurricane strikes.

Copland and librettist Edwin Denby's one-hour work unfolds like a music parable. Copland's fizzing score notes an insistence on "ascetic Brechtian performance style", as the program outlines, which director and VO Developing Artist Alastair Clark adheres meticulously to and delivers with invigoration along its course. Accordingly, in its Marxist-influenced social message of solidarity, focus is on the collective rather than individual characters and commentary is strongly and directly addressed to the audience, mostly in linear stage-fronting formation.

Rare, and a shame, are the use and warmth of personal interaction and eye contact. In its place are simple hand waving, crouching, salutes and other well-choreographed sequences of community solidarity that, despite their eye-catching style and impeccably timed nature, end up sugaring rather than churning the experience.

What clearly stood proud on opening night was the excellent and exuberant singing, along with crystal diction, that the more than forty youth combine to perform. The work's emphasis on chorus work gave them ample opportunity to shine. Conducting, Angus Grant did a sterling job in securing a seamlessly rich sound from both the performers and Tom Griffiths' solo piano accompaniment.

Victorian Opera's VOYCE, The Second Hurricane
Mellifluous soprano Shimona Thevathasan sparkled as head of the class, Queenie, pairing with James Emerson's firm-voiced and balanced, natural appeal as Gyp in a touching moment of crisis. James Young's meaty vocals pushed their weight as class bully Fat and Lachlan McLean  was resonant as the new kid Butch trying to take leadership. Other roles were covered solidly with Thomas Harvey as an effeminate nerd and class "brain" Lowrie, Saskia Mascitti as the determined Gwen and Dorcas Lim in the pants role as Jeff, the country-boy hick.

Eduard Ingles' efficient design is a simple jumble of chairs hung over a broad, stepped platform that incorporates lighting that subtly captures mood. Hues of blue denim and casual tops provide effective costumes (supervised by Joanne Paterson) for a chorus that become the floodwaters surrounding the students in a deeply atmospheric scene and whose identities stand out in bold, stereotypical costumes.

The Second Hurricane entices visually and showcases the strength and discipline of our young local singers marvellously but faithfulness to its staunch Brechtian ways also tends to be its entrapment.

The Second Hurricane
Victorian Opera
Horti Hall, 31 Victoria Street, Melbourne
Until 15th October
3.5 stars

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross