Monday, August 21, 2017

Well-tuned dramatic intent accompanies BK Opera's simple but effective La Traviata

Simple but effective, with a few notable performances, although not without issue, the heart of Verdi's La Traviata remains in place in BK Opera's latest production.

BK Opera chorus, La Traviata
A woman's portrait shaped by soft-coloured camellias forms the centrepiece of the company's sharp-looking promotional material, an idea that no doubt stems from the source of Verdi's popular mid-period work, Alexandre Dumas' 1848 novel, La Dame aux Camélias or The Lady of the Camillias. They also come incorporated into director Kate Millet's work as back-wall projections as part of a range of flowers in a botanical parade of time-lapse photography of blossoming beauty. They're succulent and sexual but they don't strike with theatrical impact in the small display field they are allotted below the prominent English surtitles.

There are no shortage of clever ideas brought to the table in an overall vision that balances the background of gaiety and an accumulation of fateful circumstances that envelop Violetta Valéry's world but some are not resolved in a way that enhance the audience's experience. The large space of the arch-ceilinged Reid Street Auditorium is pleasantly serviceable for the cast of young singers but the results are mixed with the audience seating placed perpendicular to a small open stage area facing a central aisle where some of the action occurs.

In a fine start, Act 1 opens with a small, lively ensemble of bunny-eared sex kittens ready to party at Violetta's salon in every which well-choreographed raunchy way. In their see-through light silken ivory outfits, the feel is 1940s, attractive alongside the attending men in black and white formals. Together, they do decent work of setting a scene of debauchery and harmonising richly in voice.

Rada Tochalna as Violetta
The aisle works a close-up treat for Act 2's encounter between Violetta, a radiant Rada Tochalna who lays out a beautifully paced interpretation and breezes firmly through ornamentations, and Giorgio Germont, a role well considered in portraying him as Alfredo's brother and who Josh Erdelyi-Gotz brought warmth, forthrightness and emotional weight. But the effect was compromised by lighting that the audience's eyes take a direct hit from.

Violetta's bedroom, scene of Act 3, starts well enough on the stage, though wasn't there something more than a hall chair that Violetta could sit ill and dying on? Tochalna made the most of it as the confidence and drama in her performance took a further leap but the final tragedy is played out sprawled on the aisle floor, blocked from view. Had the area been raised, the desired effect could have been delivered more effectively for a dying Violetta being nursed by a distraught Alfredo, who Patrick MacDevitt brought bull-at-a-gate temperament and a jealous streak to but tended to push vocal warmth through an overwhelming roaring forte in the top range with it.

In smaller roles that include Beth Paterson's pasty-gothic Flora and Stephen Carolane's upbeat Gastone, Finn Gilheany makes the biggest impression with his warm and burnished-voiced Barone Douphol. The role of Violetta's maid, Annina, is doubled and delivered with sweet humility by Alicia Groves and Lara Vosciano. Dottore Grenvil is, positively why not, a female doctor - for this, luscious and creamy mezzo soprano Lisa Lally elevated a minor role memorably after her solid contribution as part of the chorus.

Music comes supplied by a string quartet, at their best in a soul-searching rendition of Act 3's opening aching lament but a tad more fine-grained work was required for the overall night. Pam Christie does an expert job at piano and, taking lead, conductor James Penn exercised attentiveness in giving the tempi effectual variations. The music's separation from the main stage area on the opposite side of the hall, however, seems to take something away from Verdi's powerful and sumptuous score.

Diving into the deep end, BK Opera are providing valuable performance experience as a platform for young singers. Now with three productions to their credit, the signs of well-tuned concepts and dramatic intent are evident but some nutting out in bringing this to the audience would reap further benefits.

BK Opera
75 Reid Street Auditorium, North Fitzroy
Until 26th August

Production Photos: Third Life Photography

Friday, August 11, 2017

When world class is ordained magnificently so - Opera Australia's Parsifal in concert at Sydney Opera House

Two elements of Opera Australia's much-anticipated performance of Richard Wagner's Parsifal might not go down too well with the composer, who conceived opera as Gesamtkunstwerk - a complete work of art - a fusion of music, voice, drama, setting and design. Firstly, the nuts and bolts of a fully staged production were forgone for a concert presentation in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (the originally intended home for opera in the larger shelled section of the venue). Secondly, conductor Pinchas Steinberg's Israel-born status brings to mind the composer's rejection of the German-born Jewish court conductor at the Munich Opera, Hermann Levi, presiding at the work's Bayreuth premiere in 1882. To King Ludwig, who sponsored the opera, Wagner had expressed alleged dissatisfaction in having a Jew conduct "this most Christian of works". 

M. Honeyman, K. Youn, J. Kaufmann, P. Steinberg and M. DeYoung
Wagner lost on the second account in Bayreuth where Levi took the baton. On the first account, 135 years later, Wagner would hopefully be proud of Opera Australia's world class concert interpretation directed by Hugh Halliday and Steinberg's patient approach and graphic musical rendering.

With over four hours of time-distorting music drama - what Wagner described as "Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage") - the Opera Australia Orchestra nudging 100 untiring musicians, 16 passionate soloists and an 80-strong chorus, the story of the unassuming and ignorant Parsifal, who is destined to become the saviour of the Grail Knights, is enacted with heartfelt commitment, captivating detail and deep respectfulness. 

Amongst them all, in the title role and a certain drawcard who the world wants to brand its greatest tenor, Jonas Kaufmann brought his trademark, deliciously handsome, intense and warmly burnished sound to one of opera's most humble characters. Kaufmann, depicting Parsifal's youthful unease in the dignified attire of tuxedo, sensitively championed Parsifal's humility and subsequent enlightenment and compassion. With the backing of experience in the role, Kaufmann's smooth effortlessness, complex depth and grip on the text made an edifying performance as his pensiveness took on the demeanour of a man who knows not how to relate to his world. The star tenor didn't disappoint.

Pinchas Steinberg, Michelle DeYoung, Simon King and Michael Honeyman
American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who tantalised Melbourne audiences in excerpts of Parsifal's blustery Act II alongside Stuart Skelton last year with the MSO, dug deep into her role as Kundry, the wild woman and seductress of the knights. Broad in range, from cavernous drumming lows to a full-bodied middle and topped with mighty chilling lighting strikes of the voice, DeYoung delivered the complete multi-dimensional package, not without a dismissive smugness of expression that comes with her character's tormented and exiled soul. 

But if Kaufmann was the drawcard, Korean bass Kwanchul Youn was the evening's firm foundation as the veteran Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz. Straight shouldered and planted with commanding confidence, Youn embodied the wisdom of the sage and charisma of an orator with his thrilling, intoxicatingly well-enunciated declamatory delivery, shades of warmth and seemingly infinite reserves of power from subterranean lows to billowing highs.

Australian baritone Michael Honeyman moves from strength to strength with every role he tackles and continues to impress in Wagnerian territory. Honeyman's role debut as Amfortas was accompanied with soul-searching gravitas, golden-edged resonance and purity in depicting the ruler of the Grail kingdom, aggravated by guilt and suffering in pain, his wandering, at times fixed, wide-eyed gaze full of inner anguish.

Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann
As the magician Klingsor, who was expelled by the Grail knights for his impure desires and established himself in the valley outside Montsalvat, Warwick Fyfe brought his unique combination of vocal and performance style to his villainous character (with Vincent Price coming to mind) in a magnificent display. With powerfully heated stentorian might, as if delivered from a smelter within, the energy that Fyfe delivered came skilfully forged and phrased, adding further weight to the heights he can reach after his excellent Alberich in Opera Australia's Ring. 

Smaller roles were filled marvellously by a strong contingent of local regulars at Opera Australia with David Parkin well-grounded and resonant as Amfortas' father, Titurel and Eva Kong with Anna Dowsley opening eloquently as the First and Second Esquire before joining Stacey Alleaume, Jane Ede, Julie Lea Goodwin and Dominica Matthews, who, as the six Flower Maidens, harmonised gorgeously. Graeme Macfarlane, Simon Kim, Dean Bassett and Alexander Hargreaves made great work of the Third and Fourth Esquire and First and Second Knight respectively, with Hargreaves having a particularly secure and appealing baritone. 

Back of stage, when the Opera Australia Chorus of knights and flower maidens took to their feet, they sang with beautifully structured layering and superb gradations in volume, the men especially moving with their thrilling crescendos. A fine silken beauty shone through the 20 children in their midst.

Most attentive to drawing the soloists into to the music, Steinberg kept a firm hand on what were buoyant and invitingly paced results. Each of the Vorspiel and orchestral interludes, in particular, demonstrated the refined musicianship and the score's wide-reaching colours.

It all came presented pleasingly with Halliday making sensible choices for the comings and goings of the soloists and John Rayment's subtle lighting that, in the final moments, tinged the acoustic discs above the stage in red as the Grail is 'unveiled'. 

While the Opera Australia 2017 Sydney season was looking thin while renovations are currently in progress at the Opera House Theatre, the company have, nonetheless, made a successful step onto the Concert Hall stage which won't be forgotten. 

Opera Australia 
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House 
Until 14th August

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

Monday, August 7, 2017

Melbourne Opera's Lohengrin radiates gloriously in its mysterious medieval vision: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 8th August and in print 9th August, 2017

With its riveting drama, glorious music, radiant voices and its mysterious medieval vision, Melbourne Opera adds a crown to its credentials with its new production of Richard Wagner’s sprawling romantic work, Lohengrin.

For a composer who created some of the most monumental works of the repertoire and who envisioned and had constructed an opera house exemplifying his ideals, there is no surprise that he dictated all aspects of production scrupulously.

Marius Vlad as Lohengrin with Melbourne Opera Chorus
Now almost 170 years since it premiered in 1850, the work beams under Suzanne Chaundy’s subtle and effective direction in an interpretation that is clearly suggestive of its intended 10th century Germanic setting.

Realism and fantasy collide on a background of impending battle in which Elsa of Brabant is wrongly accused of her brother’s murder. Sailing in on a swan (deftly staged with magical projections in a rain of mist), an enigmatic knight arrives to defend her honour, precipitating a marriage with the caveat that Elsa is never to question his identity. A big ask! And, just as there are no guarantees of victory in war, there are no guarantees of doubtlessness in love. When seeds of doubt are planted, Lohengrin becomes a dramatic essay on the attack of faith by reason.

In an extraordinary wash of rich colour and atmosphere from Chaundy’s all female creative team — Christina Logan-Bell (sets), Lucy Wilkins (costumes), Lucy Birkinshaw (lighting) and Yandell Walton (video designs) — Lohengrin pulsates as much visually as it does musically (bar a tentative start on opening night) under conductor David Kram’s splendidly measured tempos and the 70-piece MO Orchestra. Rallying clarion trumpet fanfares from the side balconies add an especially spectacular dynamic.

On a sculptured run of steps under a changing sky that reflects the mystery, menace and jubilation of the narrative, the cast delivered quality from top to bottom.

Helena Dix as Elsa and Marius Vlad as Lohengrin
Wagnerian tenor Marius Vlad imparts calm and charisma in the taxing titular role as a gallant and near-saintly Lohengrin, his featherlight vibrato touching the air in a range of easy command and steadiness.

Making a formidable long-awaited return home to Melbourne, soprano Helena Dix confirmed her expertise in a captivating and tenderly calibrated vocal rendition of the innocent Elsa, her deep reserves of power gem-cut and pure.

On the dark side, Icelandic heldenbaritone Hrólfur Sæmundsson’s imposing and agitated Telramund is a vocally percolating spitfire, matching the evil and crazed Ortrud who mezzosoprano Sarah Sweeting conjures with magnificent, threateningly carved and luscious-voiced cunningness.

As King Henry the Fowler, gravelly bass and familiar figure at MO, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i presides with confident, balanced authority in what points to a grand career highlight and baritone Phillip Calcagno impresses with unwavering resonant muscularity as his Herald.

Guided by Raymond Lawrence, the vivid, undulating immensity of the 60-strong MO Chorus contribute markedly to the many tableaus and are directed with increasingly detailed action as the drama progresses.

Chaundy’s Lohengrin addresses conflict, doubt and vulnerability sublimely on a scale of love and war. On a scale of should I or shouldn’t I, no procrastination necessary. Simply go!

Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre, until 12th August

Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, 19 August

4.5 stars

Production Photos: Robin Halls