Monday, February 27, 2017

A beautifully realised Il trovatore from Melbourne's CitiOpera: Herald Sun Review

Published online Monday, 27th February and in print Tuesday, 28th February.

AT Saturday night’s opening of Verdi’s thrilling middle-period 1853 opera, Il trovatore (The Troubadour), CitiOpera’s meritorious effort accompanied their first foot in the door of the Athenaeum Theatre.

Chorus of gypsies, Act 2,  CitiOpera's Il trovatore
With its story residing in a grim melting pot of infanticide, revenge and mystery on a background of civil war, a love triangle is blown apart in a tragic finale few might see coming.

From director Stella Axarlis, what began with shades of cardboard-cutout dramatisation later gave way to full-bodied character immersion. The numerous fighting scenes, however, demanded more fluidity and aggression.

Axarlis and her creative team open the work in a time that reflects the 1930s Spanish Civil War then, for no apparent reason, plants it comfortably back in its original 16th-century setting. Nevertheless, it is beautifully realised with sharp and vibrant aesthetics.

Designer Erika Kimpton-Etter’s spare use of furnishings and large background projections of scene-defining architectural images allow full use of the tight stage. With Silvia and Fred Scodellaro’s refined costumes and Daniel Jow’s brooding lighting, the total effect becomes deceivingly multidimensional.

Four punishingly demanding principal roles shape the plot in which Verdi’s score creates ongoing tension. As again, Italian conductor Gaetano Colajanni’s contribution was invaluable, demonstrating a hunger to elucidate every turn and giving all four acts a sensitive and potent reading. Not a nerve hindered the 23-member orchestra who delivered with excellence.

Fiona Jopson and Yoon Byung Kil
In a startling performance that signals a solid career ahead, 2015 Herald Sun Aria winner Fiona Jopson enchanted as the appropriately noble Leonora, holding the stage alone in a performance highlight in Act 4’s D’amor sull’ali rosee / “On the rosy wings of love”. Jopson inhabited her role with poise and ease, portraying her character’s complexities from little joys to anguish with a gleaming soprano ripe with elegance, dynamism and flexibility.

She gives her heart convincingly to titular troubadour Manrico, who sturdy Italianate Korean tenor Yoon Byung Kil imbued with fortitude alongside some overly battle-ready stoicism that eventually melts in Ah sì, ben mio, coll’essere / “Ah, yes, my love, in being yours”, Acts 3’s emotional assurance of his love for Leonora.

Mezzo-soprano Helen Hill served up a dark and rich brew as Manrico’s adopted mother, Azucena, but vocal and dramatic gaps in the taxing destructible force to avenge her mother’s death on the pyre tarnished the impact.

With the capacity to embody a range of Verdian baritone roles, emerging young artist Samuel Thomas-Holland impressed with savvy use of text and a vast range of vocal ammunition to characterise the odious Count di Luna’s frightening extremes. As his Captain of the Guard, Adam Jon cut a finely polished Ferrando and smaller roles down to the one-liners were also handled admirably.

Bar a few wobbles, the voluntary chorus didn’t miss their chance to shine either as soldiers and gypsies but, as nuns, the most radiant-voiced singing ascended. And, the popular Anvil Chorus? That, thankfully, came with sound hammering vitality.

Now it’s up to Citiopera to keep the momentum going, build its audience and unfurl their next project before the year’s out.

Athenaeum Theatre, until 4th March
Frankston Arts Centre, 12th March
Wyndham Cultural Centre, 25th March

Rating: three and a half stars

Production photos: Robin Halls

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A haunting, edgy and strongly sung triumph: Scartazzini's world premiere of Edward II at Deutche Oper Berlin

Brought to the stage by Deutsche Oper Berlin and directed by Christof Loy, Swiss composer Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini's much anticipated world premiere work, Edward II, arrived in a dramatically layered, haunting, edgy and strongly sung triumph on Sunday night.

Michael Nagy as Edward II
King of England from 1307-27, Edward II's reign was problematic for more than his failures in an ongoing war with Scotland. Controversy brewed over his patronage of a small circle of favourites and, in this story's context, one of them in particular had to be disposed of.

Based on Christopher Marlowe's Edward II: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer (c.1592) as well as other sources, librettist Thomas Jonigk vividly and brutally highlights Edward II's personal tragedy, focusing on the crisis Edward faces in staunchly holding onto a love he can neither live without nor able to hold onto power with - the sinful love for another man in the context of religious contradictions, power struggles and homophobic attitudes.

Scartazzini and Jonigk eschew dry historical storytelling by crafting its structure with something of altered realities that blend Edward's premonition-like nightmares with events that mix the period and modern. The language effuses sarcasm, is direct and uncensored ("arsefucker" and "cocksucker" aren't used gratuitously). It's also strikingly realised by the design team that gives the work well-packaged tightness.

The main action takes place almost always across the breadth of the fore-stage and with great impact. Annette Kurz's set design features a medieval-inspired imposing memorial-like stone tower (no doubt politely alluding to a phallus) that stands to the left, with its small circular interior a capsule for secondary layers of action (usually sodomitic) with access to the rear stage. To the right, much open area exists for the large chorus gatherings and, though a single set, it always serves Loy's unabashed and often confronting direction. Klaus Bruns's costumes gravitate towards the smart and spiffy contemporary with elements of the exaggerated and Stefan Bolliger's lighting design adds depths of intrigue.

Ladislav Elgr as Gaveston and Michael Nagy 
Opening as the first of ten scenes that both segue and overlap, Edward in a dreams, is taunted by his people and bears witness to the shocking and violent sexual torture of his lover Piers de Gaveston. A mock wedding for them ensues that becomes a powerful piece of theatre full of pain, humiliation and injustice rarely seen on stage.

When, near the opera's end, a crowd is directed to the "Next room", we are given the sense that we're watching the "malleable" masses (the same ones who earlier revolted against and persecuted their king) being shown a curious contemporary exhibit of a museum diorama brought to life and leaves a powerful taste that has one question morality and justice as much of the work does.

Scartazzini's thrashing, restless and episodic 90-minute score is dotted by a tribal-like beat and cacophonous percussion that describe the tumultuous events and which conductor Thomas Søndergard leads to give much dramatic effect. The work includes scenes for a large and snarling chorus of citizens and the Chor der Deutchen Oper Berlin obliged in big and excellent voice even though a couple of times they kept the soloists from ringing through.

Still, opening night came across well-rehearsed and showed off some very appealing voices and performances as part of a superbly integrated and committed cast that aid in giving the work much throbbing theatricality.

Hefty-voiced baritone Michael Nagy plunged deep into the title role as Edward II, a star vehicle exhibiting the troubled, lascivious and madly in love king with a sting to his performance as he enters a path of no return. Nagy easily captured the sturdiness and range of the vocal writing but it's in the lower reaches of the voice that an enormous treasure chest of wealth opened up.

Edward's lover is easily identified by the strapping athletic good looks of Ladislav Elgr who depicts Gaveston as a provocative man who spends most of his time in white boxers and singlet. Elgr's liquid bright tenor compliments Nagy's broad and ripe sound and he portrays the victimised Gaveston with remarkable feeling. Importantly, the two make a compelling pair in love.

As Isabella, Agneta Eichenholz eloquently conveys the queen's frustration of languishing in a loveless marriage and subsequent spiteful air as she plots with her lover Roger Mortimer to depose the king. Eichenholz just as easily floats the music as she does in carrying it resonantly large into the sizeable Deutche Oper Theatre and she does so with compelling expressivity.

Jarrett Ott as the Angel and Michael Nagy as Edward II
Andrew Harris is a menacing presence as Mortimer and his brawny-voiced and huge capacity bass got an impressive workout. Another firm performance comes from the more burnished baritone of Jarrett Ott as the Angel only Edward can see and who shares a devastatingly haunting scene with Edward in his final moments.

Burkhard Ulrich carries of the luscious fabric costumed contradictory and sinister Walter Langton, as Bishop of Coventry, with aplomb, his wiry and ringing tenor appropriate in the role. And providing light relief but charged with loads of wit, Markus Brück and Gideon Poppe pair wonderfully together in their exploits as soldiers, councillors and tour guides in a hoot as their sexual persuasions and fetishes are ignited and tested.

When Edward learns of Gaveston's actual murder, it is from his own son who delivers the gruesome account. With it comes an innocence that belies the atrocity via the purity and sweetness of its rendition by young Ben Kleiner as the questioning young Prince Edward. It's one of many moments that lift the art of opera and theatre in a work that will no doubt be looking to a solid and exciting future.

Deutche Oper Berlin
Until 9th March

Production photos: Monika Rittershaus 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Radiant bel canto display revives a rarer Rossini treat: Tancredi at Opera Philadelphia

Tancredi was written when the early 19th century Italian composer nicknamed "Signor Crescendo", best-known for his effervescent comic opera Il barbiere di Siviglia and a prolific writer of around 40 operas, was just 20 years of age. Premiering in 1813, three years before Il barbiere di Siviglia, and moderately popular in its day, Rossini's compositional showmanship shines. A now uncommonly performed opera seria, Opera Philadelphia (in a coproduction with Opéra de Lausanne and Teatro Municipal de Santiago) have handsomely presented it with both visual elegance and descriptive vocal beauty by a radiant fine bel canto cast.

Stephanie Blythe as Tancredi
Originally set in Byzantine Syracuse and based on Voltaire’s play Tancrède, if the basis of its prescribed story of love, honour, duty and conflict doesn't thrill, director Emilio Sagi and his design team at least give flesh to it with well-paced drama while blending power and privilege successfully in an inspired, almost placeless World War I European setting with the protagonists sharply in focus. 

Act I begins as a centred single point perspective composition comprising a gathering of distinguished military and diplomatic types seated around a long banquet table within an imposing but mildly restrained neoclassical palatial room.

In the unfolding story, two rival noblemen, Argirio and Orbazzano, come together to fight the foreign invader Solamiro in a truce that hands over Argirio's daughter Amenaide in marriage to Orbazzano. Amenaide is, however, secretly in love with the exiled soldier Tancredi. When charged with treason for a letter written to Tancredi, who her father and betrothed believe to be Solamiro, she is condemned to death. In order to save her, Tancredi gallantly returns to Syracuse. 

During it all, after the initial rigidity melts away and a more pronounced human touch fires the drama, Daniel Bianco's sets undergo various soft transformations that magnify and shrink the space effectively. Eduardo Bravo's muted lighting and Pepa Ojanguren's dignified and vibrant costumes provide continuously appealing tableaux.

Three big roles with some devastatingly tricky arias form the opera's core, padded out with a chorus of male officers and three smaller solo roles. 

Brenda Rae as Amenaide
As a gobsmacking gourmet meat and gravy-voiced Tancredi, Stephanie Blythe gives a thunderous performance and takes sound ownership in this title role debut. Rossini wrote a taxing title role to fill and Blythe's solid experience fills it magnificently with unflinching assertiveness and depths of vocal shading. 

It was as if soprano Brenda Rae, though making her company debut, already appeared close to the local audience's heart. For good reason. As Amenaide, Rae let loose a showcase of vocal treats in a captivating display of desire and distress, giving it all vocal grace, gravitas and expressive power.

Also making his company debut, Michele Angelini pours a measure of diplomatic stiffness and heaps of vocal character into his role as Argirio. Angelini oozes with warmth and lyricism and pushes out some beautifully even skips through his coloratura. Daniel Mobbs' staunchly sung but somewhat repugnant Orbazzano, Allegra De Vita's poised and lusciously sung Isaura, and Anastasiia Sidorova's Roggiero all compliment the big three splendidly as do a radiant chorus of soldiers, nobles and citizens.

Michele Angelini, Brenda Rae and Stephanie Blythe
Overall, and especially so in the gentler, more spacious passages, Opera Philadelphia Music Director and conductor Corrado Rovaris gave Rossini's filigreed score affecting, well-modulated life and always remained alert to his singers. The Opera Philadelphia Orchestra made the distance with faultless musicianship among who the en pointe trumpeters and string players should take a deserved bow.

And if you're going to see Opera Philadelphia's Tancredi, and do try, don't dream of leaving before the orchestra delivers Tancredi's last breaths. It's an unexpected and moving end to opera you might expect to end with thunder.

Opera Philadelphia
Academy of Music
Until 19th February

Production photos: Kelly & Massa Photography

Monday, February 6, 2017

'Tis Pity, a disappointing, operatically barren new work from Victorian Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published online Monday, 6th February and in print Wednesday, 8th February.

If an opera company isn’t selling opera, who can it be left to? In Victorian Opera’s new collaboration between composer and librettist Richard Mills, Meow Meow and director Cameron Menzies, an identity crisis of sorts appears to be creeping in. It’s refreshing having a local company champion new work but in its efforts to build a new audience it could very well be dividing its existing one.

The Saturday night opening of ’Tis Pity — An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth is described by Menzies as a “Vaudevillian romp through the ages”.

Kanen Breen and Meow Meow
It’s a mashed-up series of songs of mixed musical style spread across 10 vignettes that mostly dawdle and occasionally gallop along. Picture book-like, it tells us a little about whoring through the ages, of misogyny, hypocrisy, desire and the transactional sale of beauty from Ancient Greece to the silver screen via the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, a fleeting High Renaissance and the 18th Century ‘gigolo et gigolettes’ among others.

The problem is that even if the libretto’s part-witty, part-convoluted penchant for rhyme and wordiness was more comprehensible, the advertised 75-minute work would still feel lengthy. Opening night, in fact, only just crossed the hour — sluggishly.

It was “written at breakneck speed” according to Mills in the program notes. That seemed to show and by halfway through it felt lacking a raison d’être. When the subject of syphilis came by way of a snappy Latin-beat song, it was time to let the frivolity be the driving force and abandon the search for meaning.

Fortunately, dolled-up Meow Meow and flamboyant Kanen Breen work superbly as a duo, both strikingly versatile and well-rehearsed. They share the stage with three time-perfect gender-fluid dancers (Alexander Bryce, Thomas Johansson and Patrick Weir) who weave in and out.

The setting is two sizeable beds adorned with protruding posts of slender stockinged legs on either side of the stage and a roll-about stair. A red velvet-curtained backdrop features two frames on which key words of the libretto are projected.

But I couldn’t help but think the songs might better have been sung without staged distractions because the marvellous sounding, crisp-playing Orchestra Victoria conducted by Mills and Meow Meow and Breen’s vocal and physical flexibility were what mattered most. Even so, it seems to belong elsewhere — in a cabaret festival or club.

At the end of it all, ‘Tis Pity feels like an indulgent work that neither does justice to the art of opera nor the rich talent at Victorian Opera’s disposal. This time the company has sold itself thin.

Production photo:  Pia Johnson

Melbourne Recital Centre until February 8

Rating: two and a half stars