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

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