Thursday, March 30, 2017

Chamber Made Opera's therapeutic, sometimes puzzling and entirely engaging Between 8 and 9

With the knowhow to pep our sense of curiosity, you come to expect to be rewarded with the unexpected in Melbourne-based Chamber Made Opera's work. Their latest venture, Between 8 and 9, is a deeply collaborative partnership with China's Sichuan Conservatory of Music. The result is a banquet of meditative and otherworldly blending and churning of instrumental, vocal and electronic sound that powerfully distances the observer from routine and places them in an abstracted cross-cultural medium of sorts. Regardless of what you make of it, it's therapeutic, sometimes puzzling and entirely engaging.

Percussionist Wang Shuai, Between 8 and 9
As part of Melbourne's Asia TOPA Festival, Between 8 and 9 is the culmination of two year's work from what began as an impromptu performance in a Chengdu teahouse after a two-week artistic exploration. Led by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey as part of eight performing artists, a sense of the impromptu lingers but with it comes ceremonial-like order that binds one and all in a sense of egalitarian comfort and mystique.

So what exactly happens? The number eight, representing harmony and prosperity in Chinese numerology, dictates the format. Each audience member receives an envelope containing a coloured card that identifies a spot at one of eight round tables at which they can take a seat amongst seven others. Prominent is a rectangular lazy Susan featuring geometric workings and thin rods magnetically supported on the surface that looks sculpturally appealing and mathematically perplexing. Each of the eight performers are seated at a table. Lighting is subdued as the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Hall takes on the feel of a function room, or Chinese restaurant, in which the audience unites in communal conditioning. The serenity and energy is palpable.

Wang Zheng-Ting opens with the mellifluous piping of the sheng (a form of Chinese mouth organ) to expose what feels like a vast distant landscape. It's followed by a dance-like form before identifying a world that conjures a blend of Chinese and Australian motifs as each performance artist constructs a simple scene - a circle of green silk is placed down, a square wooden block and triangular prism form a simple dwelling, a silvery circle is planted with lotus leaves and three rods stand vertical with a disc atop as if emulating a windmill. The striking visual effect is accompanied by vocally produced mosquito sounds, claps to catch them and yawns that are, of course, catchy! As one of the most captivating segments, its construct cleverly both describes and blurs differences to establish harmony when cultures come together.

Sheng master Wang Zheng-Ting, Between 8 and 9
Vocalists Zhu Hui-Qian and Kang Yan-Long exchange a mesmerising song of romance, she with a knife-edge sharp and glassy soprano, he with leonine megaphonic force. They are part of a meandering series of vignettes making up the piece that include performance artists Madeleine Flynn (pedal organ/toy piano/vintage electronics), Guo Si-Cen (erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument), Tim Humphrey (brass/electronics), Wang Shuai (percussion) and Carolyn Connors (vocalist/accordion/winds).

Halfway through its 70-minute duration, the artists serve buckwheat tea as a carnivalesque-like Klezmer-sounding music is played by Humphrey on trumpet, Connors on accordion with Wang joining on sheng. It relieves part of the intensity while cementing a sense of unity with many fellow attendees keen to let loose in conversation.

Sung and poetically spoken Chinese and English pepper the experience alongside a clarity and resonance of musical delivery with creative producer Tim Stitz and a team of collaborating creative artists' influence giving an all-encompassing and striking effect.

And what of nine? In Chamber Made Opera's artists' statement we learn that nine symbolises "achievement on a higher spiritual plane" and that the work "explores the space between the two". On that level, experiencing Between 8 and 9 succeeds. With no narrative, our focus is shifted, discoveries are made and the artistry speaks to us in both a personal and collective sense through cultural differences. It makes for a priceless experience.

Chamber Made Opera
Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
Until 1st April

Production photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Victorian Opera's bright, spright and tightly produced The Princess and the Pea

There were quite a few little princesses and some budding young suitors flocking around Arts Centre Melbourne on Saturday for Victorian Opera's latest family opera, Ernst Toch's The Princess and the Pea - a delightful sight indeed.

For this musical fairy tale in one act, lasting just 40 minutes to comfortably engage its time-poor but discerning young audience, Victorian Opera have excelled with this bright, spright and tightly produced work. It was one of just three performances all on the one day and it's another smart and impressive work to come out of the company with much to offer all ages.

Scene from Victorian Opera's The Princess and the Pea
Based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale published in 1835, Toch's musically bold, polyphonically piquant and descriptive style, in itself, was a privilege to listen to as conductor Fabian Russell percipiently buffed up the score with a fine patina via a handsomely sized and focused Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra. Many will be familiar with the story of the young woman whose royal credentials are established by testing her physical sensitivity but few would be acquainted with Toch's rewardingly mature orchestrations, first heard at its premiere in 1927.

In director Libby Hill's creative angle on the story, we're on the TV set of an episode of Mythical Mysteries in which a flurrying and highly animated cast of actors breezily tell the tale alongside an equally animated television crew. When the princess fails to turn up for her part, the director's assistant is forced into the role as the cameras run. It just so happens that when her off-camera prince-in-waiting catches sight of her, he falls head over heals in love.

Each scene was surtitled with a brief description in English to Benno Elkan's German-sung libretto. An English translation exists but perhaps Hill's adaptation sits obliquely to this version. Nonetheless, despite the jolly good gesturing, older audience members would benefit from added nuances embedded in the text- a small quibble because the work is full of life.

In this pantomime-like world, the giggles erupted as the mattresses are stacked for "the most beautiful bed ever seen" to an amusing slapstick display before the most appropriate pea is selected from a basketful of exaggerated sizes some children I heard question.

Bless them. I didn't hear them question the juicy palette of vivid clashing colours that decorate a polka-dotted boxed set within a TV studio setting together with the eye-catching and intricately flouncy costumes by designer Candice MacAllister. Peter Darby's punchy lighting design aided in demarcating the studio and set. They fell for it. Oh, and so did I.

Olivia Cranwell, Jerzy Kowlowski, James Egglestone, Kathryn Radcliffe
It was all spun into a vibrant vocal tapestry by the seriously fine talent that took the stage in an ensemble that worked a sweet treat with their audience. Jerzy Kozlowski brought beefy-rich helpings to the pompous King with Kathryn Radcliffe haughtily parading at his side in plush-voiced splendour as the Queen. Soprano Olivia Cranwell cordially sparkled all the way in her transition from stunned crew member to the star of the show as the winsome Princess. James Egglestone milked every moment as the vain and fussy Prince even before his grand resonant tenor made an explosive opening. Michael Petruccelli and Michael Lampard cut a memorable and muscular-voiced pair as the TV Director and TV Cameraman respectively and Dimity Shepherd shone commandingly as the conscientious TV Host.

Coming to its end, we're told there's a moral to the story, "Don't judge a book by its cover". I'm glad for that because I was a little concerned that one might read a little snobbery within the pages. Still, it's a fun and highly polished show but let's just hope our little princesses attending don't turn out as precious.

Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Three performances, 26th March

Production Photos:  Charlie Kinross

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A handsome, spit and polished HMS Pinafore from Melbourne Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published online 16th March at Herald Sun and in print 17th March 2017

MELBOURNE Opera have the heavily dramatic works of Wagner’s Lohengrin and Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux to come but a completely satisfying belly-laugh start to their season docked into the Athenaeum Theatre this week in the form of HMS Pinafore.

Occasional helpings of Gilbert and Sullivan’s unique brand of contagious merriment would rarely go unappreciated by its audience. Permission to cringe is always granted, as is admitting how much you really do fancy a tune or two.

Paul Biencourt as Ralph Rackstraw and Melbourne Opera Chorus
As director of his own plays and operas, Gilbert sought realism in acting but it’s hard to think of a G&S success that doesn’t also milk the absurd. That’s exactly the approach director and choreographer Robert Ray takes in this crisply detailed and vibrant staging plump with comic nuance.

Gilbert imbued the plot with topsy turvy jollity, with its good-natured send up of the British class system, politics and of people in authority without the appropriate qualifications still able to give a pertinent sting today.

On opening night, with high qualifications to take on the position, David Gould made a priceless entrance as a seasick Sir Joseph Porter KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty and entertained to the end with his smug and gangly demeanour and pliant bass that seemed to percolate from the hull.

As lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw, tenor Paul Biencourt was the other standout in this well-cast outfit. Lost in a dream world of love for a woman of a higher standing, Biencourt captured the heart effortlessly with a deeply impassioned performance and a treasure chest of vocal riches.

Sweet and succulent soprano Claire Lyon charmed as Rick’s love, the dutiful but industrious captain’s daughter Josephine and soared to a touching highlight, Act 2’s The hours creep on apace in which she sings of her guilt surrounding her planned elopement with Ralph.

David Gould, Claire Lyon and David Roger-Smith
Not until a person of higher rank boarded ship did David Roger-Smith take full command of his role as Captain Corcoran and, once there, sailed buoyantly and wholeheartedly along. A voluptuous-voiced Andrea Creighton brought zesty, swirling sexual energy and sorceress-like form to Little Buttercup and supporting roles were filled most commendably — Roger Howell as the downer Dick Deadeye, Finn Gilheany as the affable Bill Bobstay and Jodie Debono as the plum cousin Hebe.

From the start, Melbourne Opera Chorus sank their boots into an agile and endearing display of suitably choreographed steps, the sailors of the chorus virile of voice, the First Lord’s sisters, cousins and aunts utterly radiant.

And attired in a wardrobe of white-bleached and blue enhanced authenticity courtesy of Opera Australia, it all sparkled under lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw’s sunny blue skies and set designer Gregory Carroll’s comically exaggerated wood-grained quarterdeck and furnishings of the spacious Pinafore.

From the pit, the music expanded excellently under conductor Greg Hocking’s well-paced delivery of the jaunty and lyrical score and from the uniformly expert playing of the 30-plus Melbourne Opera Orchestra.

The audience loved it. I did too. A few misplaced steps didn’t go unnoticed though you can’t but not see that hearty G&S blood runs thick through the team in this handsome, spit and polished production.


Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre until March 18 and Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University on April 22

Rating: four stars

Production Photos: Robin Halls

Monday, March 13, 2017

A delightful and meaningful outing for The Japanese Princess from Lyric Opera of Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 14th March and in print 15th March 

SAINT Saëns’ first staged opera La princesse jaune, didn’t go down well at its Paris premiere in 1872 despite it biting into the populism of the exotic at the time. Despite cracks and misconceptions in Louis Gallet’s libretto that rather eek in our more informed and politically correct modern context, praise to Lyric Opera of Melbourne for giving this one-act curio a delightful and meaningful outing for its Australian premiere — in its skin-colour-avoiding English translation, The Japanese Princess.

Michael Macfarlane, Arisa Yura and Kate Macfarlane
Under Artistic Director and conductor Pat Miller’s thoughtful command and a lush-sounding, well-rehearsed 16-member orchestra, a dose of Saint Saëns’ beautifully orchestrated, arabesque and melodic music is a pleasure in itself to hear — even with the peculiarly Arabic flavour that peers through alongside the quaintly Oriental and lyrical passages.

It tells the story of the Japan-obsessed Kornelis who becomes enamoured with the image of a Japanese princess called Ming (not a Japanese name) and Lena his fiance (as well as cousin in the libretto) who, distressed, is uncertain of his love for her. But after an absinthe-fuelled hallucination, Kornelis comes to his senses and realises his love for Lena is real, to which Lena sings how “... love chases away doubt” in her final aria. Comically, she also gives room for a new exotic obsession, perhaps reminding us that spice is a necessity in life.

Director Miki Oikawa takes this bite-sized tale of blind obsession set in Europe and seemingly infuses it with the gentle stylistic beauty of the Japanese tea ceremony. She does so via dancer Arisa Yura who, as a kimono-dressed Ming, drolly surrounds, supports and mocks the pair in this highly focused staging. Even Christina Logan Bell’s set — a small, skewed prismatic structure — bows towards the teahouse idiom. Lucy Wilkins’ early 20th century attire for Kornelis and Lena exudes an overly stiff air but it all glows comfortingly under Lucy Birkinshaw’s muted lighting. Walls are thankfully not carpeted as the libretto makes one believe of Japan. Who spread that misconception?

Michael Macfarlane as Kornelis and Kate Macfarlane as Lena
As the respectable-looking and more introverted Kornelis, tenor Robert Macfarlane sings with sentimental warmth and vigour, delivering appealing resonance and effortless rises to the top of the voice.

At his side (as in real life) Kate Macfarlane’s pure, sinuous and effervescent soprano impresses as she paces about as the loquacious and anxious Lena. As the piece demands, the two bring a strong presence and convey the domestic drama with conviction and, for the most part, carry it through to the wry comic detail. They share the season with Huw Wagner and Kimberley Colman.

As a footnote, Saint Saëns’ little opera formed part of a trio of new short works at Paris’s Opéra-Comique that season. If it’s the kind of material Lyric dig for, Bizet’s Djamileh (which also featured and is another exotic work based on a love triangle set in Cairo to a libretto by Louis Gallet), might very well turn up in the future. This kind of discovery is part of Lyric’s attraction in making going to opera so invigorating.


Lyric Opera, Chapel off Chapel until March 18

Rating: three and a half stars

Production photos: Sarah Walker

Victorian Opera gives Respighi's The Sleeping Beauty a breathtaking kiss of life: Herald Sun Review

Published online 13th March and in print 14th March 2017

OTTORINO Respighi himself would be mesmerised by how magically glowing his musical fable, The Sleeping Beauty, lives in Victorian Opera’s latest and highly imaginative production audiences of all ages will love.

Originally written for the puppet theatre and sung from the pit, it held the stage in Vittorio Podrecca’s puppet company I Piccoli for over 20 years after its premiere in Rome in 1922. You wonder how the work could have languished.

The King and Queen and Raphael Wong, The Sleeping Beauty
Here, Victorian Opera have teamed with puppet designer and maker Joe Blanck and director Nancy Black in an outstanding collaboration that gives it a breathtaking kiss of life with the singers firmly integrated on stage.

Respighi’s score harbours a banquet of stylistic delights and descriptive signatures that conductor Phoebe Briggs and Orchestra Victoria enliven with geniality and Black sharpens both comically and affectingly on cue.

Black brilliantly enhances the borders between what is acted, sung and characterised. The voices echo poignantly in song with the puppets, alongside which the singers give consoling warmth to their matching character as they wander, watch and wait as a contemporary community embracing the power of storytelling. The story also takes a leap outside its traditional telling with a modern day capitalist, Mister Dollar, willing to buy Sleeping Beauty. On this, think Trump.

Blanck’s puppets are an extraordinary mix of material and enchanting caricature guided by his contingent of seven flexible puppeteers who step right into the action.

There’s a trudging noble Ambassador and his trumpeting Herald, dancing Frogs, the hilarious flailing Jester, the friendly ghostlike Blue Fairy, the excitable and portly King, the graceful Queen, the hunched Old Lady and her interfering feline fur ball, the Cat. There’s the fearsome scene as the Green Fairy arrives in a storm to cast her spell on the infant Princess and another as a gruesome giant spider is wrestled and stabbed to death by the Prince. Not a moment goes by in its 80 minutes that doesn’t captivate the senses. And the singing is unwaveringly assured.

Old Lady, Nadine Dimitrievitch as the Princess and Liane Keegan
Puppeteers Vincent Crowley and Nadine Dimitrievitch act the Prince and Princess with dance-like charm while mighty tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas and the floating soprano of Jacqueline Porter bring their union to the contemporary fore.

Other memorable performances come from Raphael Wong’s hefty-voiced King, Sally Wilson’s grief-stricken Queen, Elizabeth Barrow’s silky and scintillating Blue Fairy, Zoe Drummond’s sparkling Nightingale, Liane Keegan’s luscious-voiced Old Lady, Timothy Newton’s dignified Ambassador and Stephen Marsh’s warm and oaky Woodcutter.

But, plaudits to all involved and to Victorian Opera in another energised production. And when the Prince sings O, magic vision to the sleeping Princess before the kiss, you sense he sings the thoughts his audience has of the entire performance.


Victorian Opera

Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre until March 18

Rating: four and a half stars

Production photos: Charlie Kinrosss