Thursday, September 28, 2017

A voyeuristic edge frames BK Opera's inescapably gripping La voix humaine

Bethany Eloise, La voix humaine
At first, it was difficult to know whether I had arrived at the right spot for BK Opera's final production of their three-opera season for 2017. But, after a tentative climb above a few flights of stairs at 193 Bourke Street in central Melbourne, I was greeted by artistic director, Kate Millett and relieved to be where I was supposed to. As part of Melbourne's Fringe Festival, the enigma of dabbling into theatrically unsophisticated and surprising new spaces was palpable. What was to come could very well leave its dramatic stain upon them.

It may even leave you feeling that you weren't meant to be there. In Francois Poulenc's haunting one-act opera, La voix humaine, Millett creates a setting for four disturbing and fluidly connected encounters with a nameless woman ("Elle" or "She" in French) who is suffering after the breakdown of a 5-year relationship with her "Mon Cheri" and who eventually takes her life after a series of real-time telephone conversations in 45 minutes of dramatic monologue. We are by no means guests in her cocooned little bed chamber, four of them - each with its own singer who depicts her mental deterioration - but attend, watch and listen in voyeuristic and helpless quietude. The result is inescapably gripping.

The human state is not immune from the pain of breaking up and each of the four singers - Bethany Eloise, April Foster, Adelaide Greenaway and Lara Vosicano (who replaced an indisposed Lisa Lally) - brought out a spectrum of touching and nuanced colours along the way. In particular, Bethany Eloise, who opens the work, immediately draws you in with her engaging style, beautifully articulated and attentively emotive recitative as well as richness of singing. The French-sung libretto is surtitled in English but their inconveniently high-placed position stretches the neck away from the scenario.

The risk of compartmenting such a specifically solo-focused work into 4 sections is that cohesiveness and focus could easily collapse. In this case, with no space for more than a small audience of 10 who stand, sit or kneel in a tight and up-close arrangement, each brief part highlighted the voyeuristic nature of the experiences. It also provides these 4 young singers an opportunity to share the rigorous demands of the role.

Adelaide Greenaway, La voix humaine
As an odalisque-like figure just an arm's reach away and as up close as it gets, "Elle's" private world of hot pink vibrancy, an obsession with fluffy stuffed animals and a mood of soft sensuality describe the first of the 3m x 4m rooms. Moving from one room to the next, the intensity of pink diminishes until the last room wears a dominant white palette, metaphorically suggesting that the emotional toll on "Elle" has gradually drained her of purpose. Pam Christie's skill on keyboard and James Penn's narrative-friendly musical direction provide simple and adequate backing from out in the corridor.

The final moments lose power when "Elle" twists the telephone cord dangerously yet almost playfully around her neck but the overall tragedy is starkly realised. You leave the last room and walk past each of the other three spying on each of these young women frozen in their little rooms of soft-lit pinks. It might even remind you of the plush window boxes in Amsterdam's red light district. Perhaps this "Elle" had wanted so much to be loved that, when its no longer there, the pain and humiliation is too great. Whichever way you think of it, this is a Fringe Festival show worth looking and standing for.

La voix humaine
BK Opera
Carlton Club
Level 4, 193 Bourke Street, Melbourne
Until 30th September.

Production Photos: courtesy of Kate Millett

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thoughtfully realised and eerily captivating - Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre's Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets isn't a new work but it looks and feels piquantly so in Victoria Opera and Malthouse Theatre's latest co-production and presented as part of the 2017 Melbourne Festival. Premiered in Hamburg in 1990 with music and lyrics by Tom Waits and text by William S. Burroughs, the story has its roots in the dark and unsettling German folktale which the Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber set to a luscious and haunting score back in 1821, in the opera Der Freischütz.

Dimity Shepherd (Käthchen) and Kanen Breen (Wilhelm) 
The marriage of the daughter of a celebrated huntsman is dependent on her suitor having the finest shooting skills as dictated by her father. The young man she is in love with is desperate to succeed - to the point of entering into a pact with the devil, who supplies magic bullets in order that he accurately shoots his target. But the bargain goes horribly wrong as the price paid is a shot that takes his lover's life. 

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets runs without interval in a one-hour 40-minute showcase of diverse musical styles while employing a rich and rhyming poetic beat in its structure. In it, a marvellous and ingenious confluence of ideas are reflected which somehow - perhaps in the way in which the sense of the operatic is threaded through and refracted - manage to make the work apt material for an opera company. Including German Weimar cabaret, vaudeville, blues ballads, rock, American western and European-derived Klezmer tunes, in Waits' version, the sense of desperation, of addiction, of choice and repercussion is powerfully visceral. Under the direction of Matthew Lutton, the work is wild and eerily captivating.

Meow Meow as Pegleg
From the start, the audience is lured into a carnival sideshow of sorts, tempted by the devil, Pegleg, with the lyrics "We'll have a gay old time", and on which Cabaret sensation Meow Meow stamps her indelible dark charm. Zoë Atkinson's design mimics an ingenious oversized shooting gallery, a three-walled rectangular room that surprises with its many concealed hatches and forest-game cutouts, painted backdrops and overhead cables on which painted story-enhancing sheets are drawn in and out on. Within it all, Lutton's characters - in their befitting half-tailored colour-identifying costumes - move in captivating, quasi-mechanical ways that metaphorically make all of them a potential target, the devil's target, as well as compliment the rhythm of the text. 

Like the sideshow nature of the setting (beautifully lit by Paul Jackson's lightning design), each scene often holds its own as a unique sketch, yet together they mould the storytelling marvellously with much credit to Lutton. No less captivating is the talent that each individual performer brings to the stage. 

As the devil-host of her own entertainment, Meow Meow, the limping Pegleg, licks her text with seductive flair and sings in lush-toned and superbly crafted ricocheting style as she slyly eyes her domain. In a fabulously layered performance, Kanen Breen's agile tenor, warm sensitivity  and unstoppable showmanship come in full-strength quality as the desperate young man Wilhelm, hilariously contorting his way on the road to mastering his rifle, writhing his body through desperation and wearing his heart on his sleeve in love. 

Käthchen, his bride-to-be, is touchingly portrayed with the rich and deliciously phrased mezzo-soprano of Dimity Shepherd. In a memorable highlight in duet with Breen, Shepherd sings the dreamy and poignant "The Briar and the Rose" and later, as she waits for Wilhelm's return, brings enthralling intensified anguish to "I’ll Shoot the Moon".

Dimity Shepherd (Käthchen), Richard Piper (Bertram), Jacqui Dark (Anne)
The commanding and earthy-voiced Richard Piper adds a star to his copious theatrical credits as Käthchen's insistent father, Bertram. At his side, richly hued mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark imbues balanced control and tender motherly guard as his wife, Anne, and impresses as her penetrating top notes ring through the ensemble.

In a supporting role, Paul Capsis is a blazing sideshow unto himself with his dazzling high-wired falsetto and quirkily animated actions. Le Gateau Chocolat, in deep oratorial authority as the Duke/Old Uncle, and Winston Hillyer's brawny Robert round out the superb cast.

In the pit, 10 musicians forming the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra play with keen attentiveness to Phoebe Briggs' musical direction to create a music breathing with dynamism, unspoiled by the odd moment of slackening brass on opening night. Jethro Woodward's sharp soundscape design adds further depth to this mysteriously conjured world.

Beware the choices made and the pacts bargained when, perhaps unknowingly, there's a price to pay. This time, Victorian Opera's fearless approach in presenting opera-wayward work has paid off well. Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a thoughtfully realised, engrossing and unashamedly flamboyant piece of powerful theatre.

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets
Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre
Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse 
Until 7th October.

Production Photographs:  Pia Johnson Photography

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Gertrude Opera serves a Triple Treat in a perky and entertaining romp

Surviving on the lowest of budgets, Gertrude Opera makes smart and efficient choices in the delivery of good quality work, often with neglected pieces that larger companies might eschew. Three rarely performed one-act operas spanning three centuries in a two-hour evening featuring eight young singers tucked away in an intimate performance space in North Melbourne - arriving at this Triple Treat feels like a clandestine gathering of sorts. It turns out to be all very harmless and entertaining.

All sung in English starting with Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (1786), followed by Menotti's The Telephone (1947) and concluding with Ravel's Le Docteur Miracle (1857), what links these historically isolated works is their ludicrous comic charm and farcical bite. That's not to say that they don't zoom in on the complexity and tensions of human relationships, something these developing singers handled commendably.

Darcy Carroll as The Composer and Bethany Hill as Tonina
And though seemingly disparate in musical style, all three are connected by a delightful perkiness that music director Brian Castles-Onion conveyed expertly on piano. A small band might be asking too much but there were times when that's exactly what the ear wanted, so as to texturise and shape the music and provide greater warmth for the voices.

Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words) sets up the evening admirably, a short work concerned with artistic frictions between a composer, poet and two singers after the commission of an opera. Directed with vitality and cheek by Jeremy Stanford, the space bloomed with larger-than-life spiritedness. Mezzo-soprano Allegra Giagu shook the room in sumptuous and dominant style as the elegant haughty diva, Eleonora, making her grand audition a hilarious highlight as she sings of maternal love, clutching her 'required boys' for the aria, first to bosom, then to groin.

Her boys are none other than the Composer, Darcy Carroll, and Poet, Josh Erdelyi-Gotz, both of whom are sorting out their own argument in bursts of prankish charm. Carroll does an excellent job with his firm and smoky bass-baritone alongside Erdelyi-Gotz who sports an appealing light baritone but which loses clarity at the top.

Bright soprano Bethany Hill's exaggerated and frenetic portrayal of the poet's zany girlfriend Tonina, who also wants a lead, comes at the expense of timing and fluidity but that all changed when she took to Menotti's The Telephone as Lucy in a strong and vivid performance. It all ends smoothly as each of the characters settle into there place and in which the final ensemble comes together in well-harmonised voice.

The sketched succinctness and power that The Telephone's story tells is both affecting and comic and to which director Greta Nash neatly gives focus to. Ben is desperately trying to propose to Lucy before he departs on a trip but Lucy's addiction to her phone prevents the question being asked. Menotti's tricky but melodious score is a gem for which Carroll reconvenes with Hill in a sensitive and insightful interpretation that replaces the 1940s telephone with a smartphone and its original domestic setting for a table at a fine restaurant. Its construct is all too relevant today as the battle between technology and face-to-face socialisation impacts all of us.

Darcy Carroll as Ben and Bethany Hill as Lucy in The Telephone
On piano, Castles-Onion inserts a smartphone ringtone, Carroll makes a guy look like a doormat most convincingly (again bringing quality and emotion to the table in voice) and Hill's sparkling performance as the characterful and self-absorbed Lucy is a hoot. On each call she is on, the score's mood and style shift and, with it, Hill's versatility and confidence compliments them gorgeously. Ben finally gets to propose after his departure has virtually gone unnoticed. It works a treat on FaceTime.

At around 50 minutes and the longest of the works, Ravel's Doctor Miracle, is a quirky story based on commedia dell'arte principles. A young lass is forbidden by her father (the mayor), to marry a man of the military but her soldier lover manages to outsmart him through disguise, first in gaining access to the household as the hired servant Pasquin, then as the quack, Dr Miracle, who is called to the house after the mayor believes himself to be poisoned after being served a foul omelette by Pasquin.

Once again, director Jeremy Stanford infuses the plot with energy and interest, this time adding loads of cheesiness that also goes appropriately into making the opera's famous "Omelette quartet" the absurdity it is. Then again, French cuisine is to be venerated. There's a little trepidation on the part of the cast, whose timing could be sharpened, and diction is sometimes fuzzy, but the comic flavour nonetheless cuts through on this rather over-egged and frothy romp.

From dressing gown to dressed up, sweet soprano Juliet Dufour bounces about with soubrettish delight as the young lass, Laurette, her lyric polish beautifying the pre-omelette quartet deliciously in her romantic aria, "Do not scold me for it". As her lover Silvio, warm tenor Hew Wagner took to disguise more successfully as the slovenly, buffoon-like Pasquin than the creepy, warlock-like Dr Miracle. Bass-baritone Henry Shaw cleverly paces his performance from stiff pomposity to blood vessel-bursting rage as the Mayor and sings with skilful fluidity and staunchness throughout his range. As Veronique, his gold-digging wife and Laurette's step-mother, soprano Lisa Parker is dressed to impress with champagne in hand at breakfast and sings with pleasing richness.

After the shining ensemble finale and the enthusiastic applause for the evening's complete cast, what wasn't expected was a further show of singing when a "Happy Birthday to You" was sung to Allegra Giagu. They did a fine job of that too.

Gertrude Opera
130 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne
Until 20th September

Production Photographs: courtesy of Gertrude Opera

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Maximised melodrama and touching poeticism - a delightfully sung Così fan tutte at Dubai Opera

Premiered just short of two years before his death in 1791, the delightful vitality and arabesque beauty that features in the music of Mozart's two-act opera buffa, Così fan tutte, never ceases to work its charm. Neither does its fanciful story, in which women's fidelity is wagered on and mercilessly tested via a game of deception in the course of a day that goes awry. I've never thought of it as being a particularly savoury work to take a sweetheart on a date to but, as the opera's subtitle, La scuola degli amanti (The School for Lovers), implies, there are lessons to be learned along the way as part of the natural desire to accept love into our hearts.

Soloists of Teatro di San Carlo's production of Così fan tutte at Dubai Opera
Here, in a new specially commissioned production from Naples' Teatro di San Carlo and presented by Dubai Opera as part of the trio of Mozart works in which the composer collaborated with the prodigious librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, director Mariano Bauduin maximises the melodrama while infusing it with the touching poeticism the work contains. In it, the complexity of love is no less diminished by farce and fantasy.

One of the more effective aspects of Bauduin's direction is in how he 'releases' a character from the action during more introspective arias, allowing greater focus on the singing and text while keeping surrounding action gently moving along.

On centre stage, a three-sided latticed garden folly that houses a large marble statue sits on a small revolve in front of which their accompanying spaces provide just a marginal sense of scenic difference. In the background, a stepped area on either side allows for some useful ancillary action but, as a platform for chorus work, it more or less makes them feel disconnected, even redundant. It all overlooks, from on high, a painterly coastal backdrop that makes the arrival of a floral-adorned, gondola-like craft behind the little latticed folly look rather preposterous. Nicola Rubertelli's set design, as pretty as it first looks, begins to tire by opera's end, despite all sorts of dramatic lighting changes thrown on it.

Giusi Giustino's late 19th century fresh, frilled Neapolitan and exotic "Albanian" costumes colour the setting in a pantomime-like diversion but the night didn't go by without a bench being knocked over, the statue almost toppling and almost every footstep on stage noisily getting in the way. Perhaps Bouduin was aiming at the work's sticky, unsettling nature and the frailty of commitment in this prettily contrived picture.

Fortunately, Bauduin is aided by a cast who sing pleasingly in Italian and act marvellously to the beat of each other, singing with especially refined subtlety and appeal in swathes of delicious ensemble work. The experience is assisted with English and Arabic surtitles.

If one is to be elevated above the others, it would be soprano Karen Gardeazabal's well-phrased and lush-voiced Fiordiligi. Vocally, Gardeazabal displays consistent directness and purity, her Act 2 aria "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona", a performance highlight. In it, Fiordiligi has paired off with the disguised Ferrando and Gardeazabal sings with fullness of expression and shading, divulging her heart's dilemma and guilt at entertaining another man while her lover, Guglielmo, is away (he is having better success at wooing Dorabella).

Nao Yokomae, Karen Gardeazabal and Chiara Tirotta
Alongside Gardeazabal, the firmly buttressed and velvety mezzo-soprano Chiara Tirotta is perfectly placed as Fiordiligi's sister, Dorabella, with the pair offering absorbing, precision-timed interpretations in their duets, something their lovers, Maharram Huseynov's Guglielmo and Francisco Brito's Ferrando, couldn't always reliably capture.

Brito's youthful agility and primed slapstick behaviour provide many comic moments but he takes a serious and pensive approach when needed, giving Act 1's  aria, "Un’ Aura Amorosa",  a warm and radiant lyricism as he prematurely smells victory in his sight and praises his lover, Dorabella. Huseynov gives ample bravado in character and a robust and burnished baritone to Guglielmo.

As the sisters' lowly but world-wise housemaid Despina, bright soprano Nao Yokomae lights up the stage with her ebullient and cheeky, pocket-rocket performance while forcing through a delightful coarseness in tone, though sometimes at the expense of phrasing. Handsome-toned and more secure in the lower and middle range, bass Abramo Rosalen entertains marvellously as a colourfully costumed and dandyish Don Alfonso. The chorus of soldiers and townsfolk enter and perform with lukewarm results.

A wondrous sound, however, emanated from the pit where beautiful and markedly delicate orchestral textures were created courtesy of Andrea Albertin's sensitive conducting. Notably, the percussion's patina integrated excellently as did the woodwind's mellowness. The orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo played with glowing  expertise.

When the final ensemble applaud the ability to accept the good with the bad, sung silhouetted in the fore stage with the revolve on a continuous turn, chandeliers moving up and down and the gondola moving back and forward, the shenanigans are done but the topsy-turvy ride love gives feels far from over. A cute finishing touch!

Così fan tutte
Dubai Opera
Performed by Teatro di San Carlo
Until 15th September

Production Photographs: Courtesy of Dubai Opera

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mozart in leather and chains - Emotionworks Cut Opera's wild and cleverly devised Don Giovanni

Published online at Melbourne's Herald Sun 11th September 2017 and in print 12th September. 

Death literally comes knocking at the door in Mozart’s dark blend of the serious and comic in one of opera’s everlasting cornerstones, Don Giovanni. Expect to be surprised.

Michael Lampard as Don Giovanni
Emotionworks Cut Opera cut and splice to create their own unique blend, this time fusing the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Eurythmics and Queen alongside a well-represented chunk of some of the most recognisable arias and ensembles from the opera.

Inventively devised by Julie Edwardson, the two-hour show is buoyed by more than 20 well-interpreted popular snippets and a terrific expletive-laden English adaptation, despite the comedy being mostly knockabout and the work’s operatic base unevenly polished. More than anything, Edwardson’s formula demands vocal adaptability to smoothen the storytelling — something only half the cast achieves.

But the story of the arrogant, licentious and murderous nobleman, whose evildoing spells his demise, is transposed wildly and cleverly from 18th century Spain to an Australian rock festival at which Don Giovanni (Michael Lampard), rock legend, is the headline act.

All other original roles slip effortlessly into Edwardson’s scheme — including band manager, Leporello (Peter Hanway), support act, Ottavio (Patrick Macdevitt), band guitarist, Masetto, (Richard Woods) and Commendatore (Wayne Cuebass), the murdered band drummer whose ghost returns with a vengeance to drive Don Giovanni into hell.

Lampard dynamically captures the virile, fierce and self-entitled legend, his solid baritone straddling both sides of music comfortably, a highlight being his more bourbon-fuelled Act 1 Champagne Aria mixed with J.J. Cale’s dazed Cocaine.

Kate Bright as Elvira and Peter Hanway as Leporello
Macdevitt gets the festival off to a sound start as the supporting act with Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and equally succeeds in bridging musical extremes, as does Kate Bright’s foxy Elvira (festival act and Don Giovanni’s former girlfriend), who opens with a warm version of Pat Benatar’s Love Is a Battlefield, then impresses with her rich operatic mezzosoprano. Katrina Waters works a treat as Ottavio’s histrionic girlfriend Anna and Katy Turbitt makes a sweet “little pony” as Masetto’s girlfriend Zerlina. Leporello, Masetto and Commendatore are more accomplished and in tune as rock singers and musicians than opera artists.

The small band, including Edwardson on keyboard, Woods on guitar and Cuebas on drums pumps the pace smashingly and Brunswick’s grungy, wall-art heavy Rubix Warehouse supplies the perfect backdrop that sound and lighting designer Mattieu Delepau overlays with effective concert atmosphere.

Leather and chains, rugged guys and headstrong gals, drugs, alcohol and a messy trail of sexual abuse — it’s all in the mix. And when Leporello says he’s off for a drink at the bar after Don Giovanni’s off his hands, followed by an excellently harmonised Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ll probably want to join him.

Emotionworks Cut Opera
Rubix Warehouse
63 Phoenix Street, Brunswick
Until 24th September


Production Photos: Phil Thomson