Sunday, October 29, 2017

An energised and entertaining show but love at first sight doesn't quite gel in The Production Company's Brigadoon

Heading into its 20th year, The Production Company have been nurturing local musical theatre talent and bringing Broadway entertainment to the stage in consistent sparkling form. In this year's final production of the season, the company's characteristic verve and high standards similarly shone in Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe's (music) 1947 romantic fantasy, Brigadoon. But something prevented me from feeling completely absorbed by its quaint frothy tale despite director Jason Langley's fresh update, Cameron Mitchell's exhilarating choreography and musical director Michael Tyack's vivacious reign over the gorgeous music-making from the 21-member orchestra.

Genevieve Kingsford as Fiona and cast of Brigadoon
For modern eyes, it's probably unsurprising that everyone seemed a little odd in Brigadoon, the mystical Scottish village that reawakens and appears once every 100 years for just one day. In its story -  from the creative duo who went on to pen Gigi, My Fair Lady and Camelot - adventurous New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Rohan Browne) and Jeff Douglas (Luke Joslin) first seem to think so when they stumble on this quirky village in the Scottish Highlands stuck in another time. From afar, at least from my perspective in the dress circle, Fiona MacLaren (Genevieve Kingsford) might seem its oddest, the pretty village maiden who zooms in on Tommy in a love-at-first-sight encounter.

If we are to believe in love at first sight's inexplicability, I wanted to believe that there's credibility to its magic on stage. Lerner's book wastes no time in setting the scene but falling desperately in love is different to looking hopelessly desperate, which we see in Kingsford's portrayal. Was I taking it far too seriously in this lighthearted escape fuelled mainly by good helpings of comic charm and adrenalised action? I don't think so because believing that Fiona and Tommy's relationship is completely based on love forms the core of the story, not on some ulterior motive which appears to permeate through Fiona's desperation. If that was unequivocally established, the comedy could run with abandon.

Garishly bright-orange-wigged, Kingsford is a talented and magnetic artist to watch and she sang with a rich and attractive sound on opening night, though there were times the top of the voice lost shape at full power. Browne's was a passionate and sensitive portrayal of Tommy, a handsome and modern metrosexual who he gave an impressive sunshiny timbre to. In duet with Kingsford, Tommy and Fiona shared a superbly sweetened interpretation of Act 1's "The Heather on The Hill" but the most vocally seductive and poignant moment the pair melted together in was to come in Act 2's "From This Day On", when Tommy decides he needs to leave Brigadoon.

Nancye Hayes, Genevieve Kingsford and Rohan Browne
In entertaining and cracking comic form, Joslin drew many a genuine laugh playing the laid back and jokester Jeff and made a memorable moment of his disinterest in the largely embraced village strumpet, Meg. Depicting her, suitably voluptuous-voiced Elise McCann gave an unashamed dazzling sauciness and polished up the melodious pair of songs, Act 1's "The Love Of My Life" and Act 2's "My Mother's Wedding Day", with exceptional appeal.

There was not only Fiona's one-eyed desperation and Meg's looseness, but also Maggie's (Karla Tonkich) creepy obsession with Harry and Tommy's blonde and shallow socialite New York fiancé, Miranda Ashton (Adele Parkinson). I couldn't get the solid supply of pretty young faces but unflattering female portraits hanging in the show's gallery out of my mind. If you're older and made up to be plainer, you get a little more substance and two of Australia's esteemed musical theatre performers made certain of that. Sally Bourne gave warmhearted and imposing presence to Fiona's mother Alice and Nancye Hayes was both commanding and approachable as the village matriarch Mrs Forsythe, who Langley gives clever elevation to by replacing her with the original book's schoolmaster Mr. Lundie.

Other excellent performances came from Matthew Manahan as the excitable bridegroom Charlie and his bonny bride Jean, Fiona's sister, Stefanie Jones. Young talented artist Joel Granger shaded the work enormously as the disturbed Harry and the well-experienced Stephen Hall was strong and expressive in the role as his father Archie Beaton.

Luke Joslin as Jeff and Elise McCann as Meg
The ensemble singing was driven with gusto, occasionally overly so, and the dance routines were a series of energised spectacles - Act 1's Sword Dance and Reel and Act 2's Chase, representative of both the traditional and cheesy. Then there was Browne's streamlined moonwalking dance steps to provide contrast. And the solemnity of Harry's funeral with bagpipe accompaniment was heart wrenching. A seat in the stalls would be preferable. From above, the stage can look a tad bare.

At first I was perplexed by the sky-full of crosses that hung above the stage as part of designer Christina Smith's simple and effective set. Then it dawned on me - to protect Brigadoon from being changed by the outside world. It also added an eeriness that is further sensed in the wooden stepped structure in the town's square, a platform that supports the wedding celebration as easily as it could the gallows. Isaac Lummis' costumes are delineated in a thoughtfully detailed spread of colour and Matt Scott's extensive lighting palette captured the various moods wonderfully.

As the wise Mrs Forsythe says, "When you love someone deeply, anything is possible." And as Brigadoon presents it, that can be both a celebration (for Tommy and Fiona) and a curse (as befalls Harry). The appeal of Langley's production is that even when the buzzing entertainment is over, it leaves a little left over to ponder.

The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 5th November.

Production photos: Jeff Busby

A splendid evening showcasing young operatic talent in The Herald Sun Aria Final: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun on 26th October and in print on 27th October, 2017

In a splendid evening presided over by informative and jocular MC, Christopher Lawrence of ABC Classic FM, the diversity, expression and beauty of the classical voice shone brightly at the 93rd Herald Sun Aria final. For the distinguished panel Richard Mills, Roxane Hislop and Suzanne Johnston, judging the five finalists wasn’t an easy task. Mills rightly pointed out that they’re all winners and the competition is part of the ongoing journey.

Countertenor Maximillian Riebl
For countertenor Maximilian Riebl, that journey is now injected with added prestige of joining celebrated winners that include Kiri Te Kanawa and Nicole Car.

Riebl opened the competition strong, poised like an athlete for “Dove sei, amato bene?” from Handel’s Rodelinda. Riebl brought an affecting and contemplative interpretation with the mesmerising sound of the sustained and perilously high falsetto, his voice a generously buttressed one, effortlessly smooth and firm at the top.

Four other finalists followed, each singing one aria in the first part of the program and, in the same order, presenting a second in part two.

Agile tenor Michael Petruccelli’s “È un folle, e un vile affetto” from Handel’s Alcina came intelligently structured with heartfelt passion and attractive shading. Warm baritone Raphael Wong’s lively animation of the famous “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, dexterous as it was, sadly had timing issues. Lone female, luscious soprano Olivia Cranwell, took to the stage like a ship’s figurehead, surging ahead of the orchestra and ornamenting “Pleurez! pleurez mes yeux!” from Massenet’s Le Cid with exquisite delicacy, an outstanding rendition that would take her to runner up. Then, bright tenor Shanul Sharma displayed all the fireworks of the fair with aplomb that Rossini so skilfully scribed in “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” from La Cenerentola.

M. Petrucelli, S. Sharma, M. Riebl, O. Cranwell and R.Wong
However, it was the consistency in Riebl’s composed delivery, technical expertise and natural expressivity that won him the trophy. In Riebl’s second aria, “Venga pur, minacci e frema” from Mozart’s Mitridate, the adrenaline rushed with virility and force together with flexing coloratura and superbly disguised breathing. Riebl’s was an honest performance, fine-grained, without flamboyance.

Petruccelli’s well-contrasted aria was a touching and assured “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Cutting through the orchestra, Cranwell’s immersion into Puccini’s lucent “On bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly emitted a focused intensity.

Wong acquitted himself remarkably with a deliciously smooth and suitably selected “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. And standing by Rossini’s melodic whizzes, including a degree of difficulty of 10 High Cs, Sharma shook “Asile héréditaire ... Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance” from Guillaume Tell with forthrightness to take a well-deserved encouragement award.

On the whole, a dashing Orchestra Victoria supported the finalists admirably with maestro Mills doubling as conductor — attentions might have been divided on that front. While the judges deliberated, two young guest artists, pianist Hannah Shin and cellist Vincent Wang charmed with their virtuosic playing. It was, all in all, a night to celebrate the talents that nurture our opera future.

Herald Sun Aria Final
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
25th October 217


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Director Penny Woolcock's brilliantly contemporised interpretation of The Pearl Fishers comes to LA Opera

After an initial 18-performance run at Paris' Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) never saw the stage again until 1886. Though it has entered the repertoire since, it was only performed for the first time in 100 years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last year. It is this production, by British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, that LA Opera is currently presenting on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The production was created for English National Opera and it makes a fine and welcome case for Bizet's lesser known work getting exposure today.

Alfredo Daza as Zurga, Nino Machaidze as Leïla and LA Opera Chorus
For the most part, the work is presented as a lush curio that gives directors and designers license to delve into Asian exoticism, often overly glamourised and generally far removed from our time. But Woolcock's version is a brilliantly contemporised and inventive interpretation of its story - one that centres on the bonds of friendship, love and loyalty - and it comes with refreshing directness and realism. Woolcock's sharp cinematic eye is evident from the moment the dreamily atmospheric overture plays. The entire stage is a cross-section of a deep blue sea in which three divers, the pearl fishers, swim through in a sensationally choreographed aerialist display that unsurprisngly brought applause. 

The setting (formerly Ceylon) is a little Sri Lankan village sitting vulnerably, as the circumstances are, at the edge of the water - poor, shanty-like and buzzing with its locals in spice-coloured costumes under a mostly inky sky (set designer Dick Bird, costumes by Kevin Pollard and lighting by Jen Schriever). The overall effect is masterful and adaptable in its scene changes. Of question, however, is the way how Woolcock turns Act 2's storm scene into a rogue tsunami reminiscent of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that would wipe out such a village. From there, projections of the disaster's aftermath mark scene changes (and they are lengthy) that are more detrimental in effect than being relevant on her otherwise insightful storytelling. On that front, Woolcock draws a wonderful picture of believable performances from her cast.

The story focuses on a friendship put to the test between Zurga and Nadir, who are both in love with the priestess Leila. She has sworn an oath of chastity as part of a religious ritual in order to protect the pearl divers, but weakens when Nadir’s arrival inflames her desires. 

Alfredo Daza as Zurga and Javier Camarena as Nadir
Bizet's scoring is sensitive, mature and gorgeously threaded but it is the opera's duet between Zurga and Nadir in Act I, "Au fond du temple saint”, that is its most well-known part. An impressive-voiced pair, Javier Camarena (Nadir) and Alfredo Daza (Zurga) made the duet a poignant highlight as they explored their character's friendship and tension, first singing apart before coming together to join in song as comrades wounded by a hint of uncertainty in their encounter. Camarena displayed much to impress in both his role and house debut, his warm and glimmering tenor on show and power when needed. Daza's striking presence, handsomely dark-hued and resonant baritone perfectly matched the command he exhibited as leader. With it came the dramatic interpretation and an underlying suspicion he layered on his character, coming to a climactic highlight in Act 3's opening as Zurga see-saws from remorse to jealousy. 

It's the role of Leïla that has the most taxing music and soprano Nino Machaidze, a regular and much-loved artist at LA Opera, made it divine. Machaidze brought to Leïla a beautifully poised demeanour and a devastatingly well-calibrated and touching performance as a 21st century woman sacrificing her freedom under religious demands in a male-dominated society. In Machaidze's genuinely felt rendition, sung with both spoonfuls of purity and magnetic resolve, Leïla has never been so relevantly portrayed. 
Nino Machaidze as Leïla
Big-brewing bass baritone Nicholas Brownlee gave a dignified performance as Nourabad, the humble high priest of Brahma. The chorus of fishermen, townsfolk, priests and priestesses didn't always harmonise to the excellent standards that audiences are accustomed to at LA Opera, but they still did a fine job, more so the ladies, and they certainly detailed their acting like they knew what's required of them for a Hollywood screen test.

For this matinee performance, Plácido Domingo took the baton up after only having taken the title role of Nabucco by the horns in the previous evening's opening night. There seems no stopping this maestro's tireless pursuits. Musically, Domingo issued the score with superbly balanced weight and energetic thrust in company with precision playing from the LA Opera Orchestra.

If The Pearl Fishers isn't amongst one of your favourite operas, this Penny Woolcock production, so gorgeously realised and sung, will likely change that.

The Pearl Fishers
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 28th October.

Production photos: Ken Howard

Anna Netrebko stops by in Melbourne as a worthy queen of the stage: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Melbourne's Herald Sun, 19th October, and in print 20th October 2017.

Opera lovers around the globe are finally having the privilege of seeing today’s most celebrated diva in live performance on their stages. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is sharing her gift of voice on a current concert tour in between a demanding schedule at the world’s leading opera houses. It was Melbourne’s fortune last night when the glamorous superstar of opera graced the Hamer Hall stage. Netrebko was radiant, in outstanding form and riveting to watch from the start.

Elchin Azizov, Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov at Hamer Hall
On entrance, Netrebko was all smiles before plunging into Verdi’s turbulent aria of conflicting feelings from Aida, "Ritorna vincitor!" And victorious she was! Demonstrating mesmerising flexibility, it was not only her rich tone, lustrous finish and soaring top that impressed. Making full use of the stage, Netrebko conveyed her character with power and commitment.

Singing a comprehensive and balanced program of mostly Italian opera excerpts, Netrebko dazzled from one to the next with works that reflected not only the more dramatic quality and broadening of the voice, such as a poignant aria from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, but the lighter, more melodic style she illuminated in "Stridono lassù" from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Netrebko’s effortless control and comfortable presence continued, shining with ethereal and crystalline beauty in Dvořák’s "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka.

But Netrebko wasn’t alone, sharing the limelight with husband Yusif Eyvazov — he is an increasingly successful tenor in his own right and impressing immensely with his toasty, passionate and voluminous Italianate sound. First came a nobly rendered aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore, later a knockout "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini’s Tosca — to which he signed his own robust signature on — then a gripping and impassioned "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci. Alongside his wife, the chemistry palpable, their embrace and kiss added melting expression to Verdi’s "Già nella notte densa" from Verdi’s Otello.

Yusif Eyvazov, Anna Netrebko and Mikhail Tatarnikov
Surprise entry and guest artist Elchin Azizov added to the celebratory three-way mix, his smouldering and firmly buttressed baritone evident. Azizov paired with Eyvazov in a stridently militant duet from Verdi’s Don Carlos, then joined with Netrebko for a romantic, waltzing start to the second half with "Lippen schweigen" from Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

Warm and affectionate, Netrebko shared her enthusiasm all around. Behind her but always acknowledged, the Opera Australia Orchestra sounded glorious in this rare emergence from the pit with exuberant conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov at the helm. Employing spirited tempi, the orchestra responded with layers of plush and relentlessly magnificent orchestral detail.

But it was Netrebko who reigned, matching the ticket prices with a superlative evening that was worthy of her crowned status. In an operatic escapade around some of opera’s best-known arias and duets with a stop by a few lesser-known ones, Melbourne will be begging for more.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov
An Evening of Opera Highlights
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
18th October 2017


Production photos: Brett Schewitz

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A splendidly realised contextual exploration of Verdi's Nabucco at LA Opera

First, there was the inexhaustible champion of opera, Plácido Domingo, taking on the title role. Adding to that, the powerhouse Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska made a sensational house debut as Abigaille. Under James Conlon's fervent conducting, the music utterly soared and, to tantalise, a resplendent feast for the eyes came courtesy of director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger - LA Opera's new production of Verdi's Nabucco opened on Saturday with an array of outstanding attributes to win the audience's favour.

Plácido Domingo as Nabucco
The production comes via Washington National Opera, where it premiered in 2012 with later seasons at Minnesota Opera and Opera Philadelphia. It also came with an interesting twist. Strassberger has created a novel historical inset that uses the work's 1842 premiere at Milan's Teatro alla Scala as a point of reference in the presentation of its biblical story of religious tensions within which a complicated love triangle boils through.

While a few details in the historical facts are condensed and brushed over in Temistocle Solera's libretto, accompanied by Verdi's grand and tempestuous score, it became a symbol of Italy's subjugation under Austrian rule and a small ingredient that reflected the push towards Italy's unification. Rapturously received, Strassberger uses its perceived political undertones by placing his modern audience in the context of a 'reimagined' Milanese premiere at which distinguished foreign aristocrats in the audience watch on while a group of military soldiers, observed on stage at the beginning of every act, are at the ready should trouble emerge. It eventually does.

Monastyrska couldn't resist a condescending glance directed to her little well-heeled audience during her performance. Then, what came as a huge surprise to the actual opening night Los Angeles audience following the curtain call, there was a rousing uptake of the opera's most famous chorus number, “Va, pensiero", started by one voice, picked up across the stage, then open for all of us to sing. "Viva Verdi" bloomed on stage and the soldiers weren't happy. In its time, encores were not permissible by the Austrian authorities. But, regardless of the circumstances, the ingenuity of Strassberger's contextual exploration lies in how he uses Nabucco to press upon theatre's role in stirring political and social change. On the whole, Strassberger carries the concept off with an intriguing perspective and in impressive style, notwithstanding Act 3's embedded "Va, pensiero" being presented as a backstage view that unnecessarily interrupts its course.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille
A three-tiered slice of La Scala edges the Dorothy Chandler proscenium, looking into each of the exquisitely detailed flats and backdrops that depict an architecture of impressive proportion, beginning with the striking coffered ceilings and weighty carved columns of Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon. Mattie Ullrich's eye-catching costumes display reams of vivid colour for the Assyrians with the Hebrews robed in creamy white, all of which glow evocatively under Mark McCullough's lighting design to give it the wonder of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, though with much less action.

Just as impressive were the individual performances on opening night. Tenor turned baritone Plácido Domingo never ceases to amaze (following opening night he conducted a matinee of The Pearlfishers). When Domingo made his first appearance well into the first act with his warriors, he arrived with a voice that rang with both firm authority and beguiling freshness. In previous baritone roles at LA Opera such as Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth and Athanaël in Massenet's Thaïs, Domingo's masterful technique, intelligently shaded expressivity and staying power excelled.

Domingo was similarly impressive as Nabucco, the King of Babylon. Being amongst the finest operatic actors to watch, Domingo coloured his character's emotional range with conviction and subtlety, from stern leader to demented self-proclaimed god, a miraculous return to reason and subsequent conversion to Judaism. As Nabucco's introspection intensified, Domingo oozed with natural warmth, culminating in Act 4's splendidly sung prayer, "Dio di Giuda". If there was just a little of something needing in Domingo's performance, it was a desire for greater consistency when projecting thrilling power which happened to waver on occasion.

Morris Robinson as Zaccaria with LA Opera Chorus
That proved no issue for Liudmyla Monastyrska as Nabucco's illegitimate daughter of slave blood, Abigaille. Making a macabre entrance wielding a sword and slaying a Hebrew, Monastyrska also wielded a vocal instrument with hair-raising volcanic force and impressively nuanced expression. Contrasting fire and ice combined with a delicious, deep lustre, evenly edged top notes and plunges to a meaty low range, Monastyrska commanded the stage from the start. The vocal dynamics of Act 2's "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno" were especially outstanding and on full display as Abigaille first discovers the document that reveals her slave bloodline before blazing into "Salgo già del trono aurato" with her determination to seize the crown.

Strong resonating bass Morris Robinson was coercive as the high priest of the Hebrews, Zaccaria, his Act 2 prayer to god for the Assyrians to find their way to Jehovah in "Tu sul labbro" interpreted with a smoothly arching vocal beauty. In the face of her dominant sister, lush mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera gleamed consistently as Nabucco's true daughter Fenena. As Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and together in love with Fenena, tenor Mario Chang, though complimenting her with appropriate warm-toned richness, faded in the lower seat of the voice. Gabriel Vamvulescu made solid work of a smaller role as the hunched over High Priest of Baal.

There are lashings of opportunity for Verdi's tremendous chorus work to take the spotlight but that didn't always translate into the hoped for dream of excellence - at times, the harmonies sounding underpowered and murky. The best came with a rousing Act 1 finale as the Israelites curse Ismaele and Act 4's "Immenso Jehova", leaving  “Va, pensiero" feeling soulful but lukewarm in comparison. In the pit, however, Conlon went to work enthusiastically and the adrenaline and variety of the score was realised with superb playing by the LA Opera Orchestra with some notably melting moments of brass.

If Verdi's Nabucco could rally its audience at its premiere, why not do so again? On show was more than enough splendour and expertise in Strassberger's Nabucco for an audience to willingly rise together in voice.

LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion , LA Music Centre
Until 19th November.

Production photos: courtesy of LA Opera

Melbourne Festival's Taylor Mac: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music (Chapter I: 1776-1836) - outrageously bawdy, sensory and highly pertinent

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, in edited form, 13th October 2017.

Imagine a drag queen born from the cosmos in an explosion of light and glittering colour. Then, imagine this being as an all-knowing disciple of the universe, arriving to bring enlightenment to a world wounded and suffering. Finally, imagine being transfixed by her aura, under her spell and converted by her message of love, inclusiveness and acceptance. This is Taylor Mac, creator, writer, performer, and codirector of A 24-Hour History of Popular Music, here as part of the Melbourne Festival.

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Chapter I
In an epic deconstruction of American history, 1776 to the present, Mac scrutinises a world of oppression and fear that obstructed and injured many as others exerted their superiority. Mac does this through songs of the period and an all-embracing charisma in an outrageously bawdy show that ignites the 'what were' and 'what ifs' in a wild ride.

It's 24 hours in length, spread across four six-hour chapters over four nights. Chapter I: 1776-1836 burst open in a ricochet of rich and raucous entertainment, at the heart of which community building is paramount, boundaries are expanded and normal is an alien concept. Not to worry if you're not familiar with American history, Mac makes it memorable, immediate, sensory and highly pertinent. To begin, a welcome exchange of gifts from local indigenous representative Aunty Di Kerr made certain it would be.

From the American Revolution to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, coursing through the early Woman's Lib and Temperance movements with a heteronormative narrative as colonisation, Mac bites into history and humanity. Song after song - with new arrangements by music director and pianist Matt Ray - is sung with absorbing power, inexhaustible energy and chameleon-voiced subtlety. Ray leads an exceptional band of 24 versatile musicians with one lost every hour.

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Chapter I
An ensemble of "Dandy Minions" weaves about with items including dress-ups to reimagine ourselves, pamphlets, apples, beer, ping pong balls, flowers, grapes and blindfolds that stir participation. At times you might feel lost (blindfolded for an hour, you are) or uncomfortable (that's ok too) and thirsty (there's a bar to head to) but Mac is always there if you need him as he changes from one wild costume to another, crowned with elaborate headdresses of tinsel, cork and feathers by costume designer Machine Dazzle.

From the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible in "Amazing Grace", Mac stamps impact on over 50 songs, some familiar, many not, all with purpose. There's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and an appearance by cabaret sensation Meow Meow in "10,000 Miles". Further along, there's the clash of puritanism with debauchery in "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes", a rousing "Shenandoah" from a beautifully harmonised chorus on the way to the moving Cherokee songs on the Trail of Tears as the colourful story of Harry, Jane and Louisa Maria is threaded until we reach a soaring rendition of "Banks of the Ohio".

By this point, you're never going to let anything stand in queer's way.

Taylor Mac: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music
Melbourne Festival
Forum Theatre
11th October 2017


Production Photos: Sarah Walker

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Adventure and enthusiasm aplenty in Victorian Opera's youth opera, The Second Hurricane

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, in edited form, 10th October, 2017.

Youth's adventurous spirit and boundless enthusiasm is on full display in Victorian Opera's latest production that nurtures the future of young singers as part of Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE).

Victorian Opera's VOYCE, The Second Hurricane
American composer Aaron Copland's The Second Hurricane, premiered in 1937 and written specifically as a youth opera, gives a compelling account of a group of six high school students who volunteer and fly off to aid victims of a hurricane. Avidity takes a turn as they become stranded with floodwaters rising around them but learn to resolve their differences and rally together after a second hurricane strikes.

Copland and librettist Edwin Denby's one-hour work unfolds like a music parable. Copland's fizzing score notes an insistence on "ascetic Brechtian performance style", as the program outlines, which director and VO Developing Artist Alastair Clark adheres meticulously to and delivers with invigoration along its course. Accordingly, in its Marxist-influenced social message of solidarity, focus is on the collective rather than individual characters and commentary is strongly and directly addressed to the audience, mostly in linear stage-fronting formation.

Rare, and a shame, are the use and warmth of personal interaction and eye contact. In its place are simple hand waving, crouching, salutes and other well-choreographed sequences of community solidarity that, despite their eye-catching style and impeccably timed nature, end up sugaring rather than churning the experience.

What clearly stood proud on opening night was the excellent and exuberant singing, along with crystal diction, that the more than forty youth combine to perform. The work's emphasis on chorus work gave them ample opportunity to shine. Conducting, Angus Grant did a sterling job in securing a seamlessly rich sound from both the performers and Tom Griffiths' solo piano accompaniment.

Victorian Opera's VOYCE, The Second Hurricane
Mellifluous soprano Shimona Thevathasan sparkled as head of the class, Queenie, pairing with James Emerson's firm-voiced and balanced, natural appeal as Gyp in a touching moment of crisis. James Young's meaty vocals pushed their weight as class bully Fat and Lachlan McLean  was resonant as the new kid Butch trying to take leadership. Other roles were covered solidly with Thomas Harvey as an effeminate nerd and class "brain" Lowrie, Saskia Mascitti as the determined Gwen and Dorcas Lim in the pants role as Jeff, the country-boy hick.

Eduard Ingles' efficient design is a simple jumble of chairs hung over a broad, stepped platform that incorporates lighting that subtly captures mood. Hues of blue denim and casual tops provide effective costumes (supervised by Joanne Paterson) for a chorus that become the floodwaters surrounding the students in a deeply atmospheric scene and whose identities stand out in bold, stereotypical costumes.

The Second Hurricane entices visually and showcases the strength and discipline of our young local singers marvellously but faithfulness to its staunch Brechtian ways also tends to be its entrapment.

The Second Hurricane
Victorian Opera
Horti Hall, 31 Victoria Street, Melbourne
Until 15th October
3.5 stars

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Ferruccio Furlanetto and Igor Tchetuev in recital - an affecting and incisive intrepretation of Russian art songs

How rare it is to hear the deepest extremes of the human vocal instrument given centre-stage attention in recital. In opera, as devils and gods, kings, leaders and fathers, the bass voice embraces, smothers and thunders its hefty way into the drama, more often without stealing the limelight from the glamorous sopranos or tenors. It's these such roles that internationally acclaimed Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto has stamped his mark on in all the major opera houses - the title role of Boris Godunov aside, there's Jacopo Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin and Philippe II in Don Carlos, which Furlanetto sang in his Australian debut in Sydney in 2015.

On Monday evening, in a recital presented by Opera Australia, local audiences had the fortune to attend Furlanetto's Melbourne debut at the Melbourne Recital Hall in an all Russian program of songs by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). On show was the superbly refined sound of an artist whose secure, resonant and smouldering bass clad the songs in thrilling dramatic purpose. At piano, Ukrainian born pianist Igor Tchetuev's insightful playing and judiciously balanced support provided additional striking textures. Together, a lush and thickly blanketed acoustic blend filled the venue's large Elizabeth Murdoch Hall.

Furlanetto and Tchetuev have appeared numerous times together and the polish they apply to performance is evidently ingrained. In 2010, the pair released a CD recording of Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky songs on Prestige Classics Vienna, simply titled, Songs. It's from this collection that the Melbourne recital is predominantly based (as was the same program performed at Sydney Recital Hall on 30th September).

The evening was characterised by songs of pronounced introspection, often plaintive and eerie, to verse that speaks to the landscape, to the unseen and to the heart and Furlanetto meandered through them eloquently. A complimentary program booklet included the English translation of the songs, though it would have been helpful to see in print the Russian being sung. Nonetheless, and notably, Furlanetto guided the listener through the text via expertly described interpretations.

The program's first part featured eight songs by Rachmaninov (some coming in at barely a minute's length), including "The Silent Night" and "O, No, I Beg You, Do Not Leave!" from the early Op. 4 designated song set and "A Dream" from the Op. 8 of 1893. From the Op. 21 set of 1902, Furlanetto began the evening in commanding form with the heavy air that the song "Fate" carries, the word 'Стук' (Stuk), or 'knock' hammered three times and interspersed through the text to reinforce the ominous end to come. Furlanetto established an immediate connection to the spirit of the song, extracting its dark colours as he stood in front of the piano and occasionally leaning a hand on it to take the weight of an anxious and affected character.

Also from Op. 21, Furlanetto imbued the songs "Lilacs" and "How Nice it is Here" with ample richness within their brevity, a big and beautifully harnessed middle and low range burning from the engine inside. If one could detect a slight hesitancy and push at the top of the voice early in the first part, any doubts about its health and powerful soaring height was easily swept aside before the first part's last song, "The fields are covered still with snow" of Op.14, was over, a song that yields radiance and warmth in tone and hope.

Nine songs by Mussorgsky formed the second part of the program, including the four-song cycle composed in the mid-1870s considered to be Mussorgsky's masterpiece in the genre, "Songs of Dance and Death", which were saved for last. Within them, Furlanetto delivered the sadness and horror of death, which arrives in various forms, for each of the dark-hued and individualistic songs - "Trepak", "Lullaby", "Serenade", and the tumultuous "The Field Marshall" - in enigmatic storytelling style and diverse chromatic beauty. The conviction, fluidity and fire in Furlanetto's interpretation was to become the evening's runaway highlight.

In the first five songs, mostly brief but which generate just as much poignancy in their little vignettes, Furlanetto maintained a believable love for the music he sang, beginning with a soulful "The Leaves were Whispering Sadly" (written when Mussorgsky was 19 years old) which featured the voice's tremendous steadiness and clean crescendos. The  sense of tension relayed in "What are Words of Love to You?", the warm and chesty resonance that compliments "Song of the Old Man" and the determination to convey the sadness of loneliness in "The Winds Blow" with effortlessly cohesive phrasing - even in depths of gravitas, Furlanetto has the ability to edge the voice in attractive golden light.

Next May, Furlanetto returns to Melbourne to take the title role in Opera Australia's new production of Massenet's Don Quichotte. For those in the audience who saw the calibre of performance that Furlanetto brought to this collection of Russian art songs, an outstanding treat awaits.

Ferruccio Furlanetto and Igor Tchetuev in Recital
Melbourne Recital Hall
2nd, October 2017

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On the Coolangatta sands, Verdi's Aida is dazzlingly brought to life in Opera Australia's Griffith Opera on the Beach

Treated to a clear and calm evening with a background of pre-performance Middle Eastern music and a Pacific Ocean horizon view, Opera Australia's new production of Verdi's Aida promises exoticism to sink the teeth into and sand to dig the feet in. It's Old Kingdom Egypt on the beach at Gold Coast's Coolangatta and it's an experience few barefooted opera-goers would leave unimpressed by. This is the national opera company's Griffith Opera on the Beach, a collaboration between Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University with support from Tourism and Events Queensland (amongst others) and it comes in first-class form.

 Opera Australia's Griffith Opera on the Beach - Aida
On top of there being so much to love about the concept of opera on the beach, director Hugh Halliday's Aida unfolds gloriously on the sands in a musically fulfilling, vocally splendid and boldly presented evening of astutely realised drama in a broadly traditional approach.

Rising above a stepped terrace on which two minor sphinxes demarcate the outer area, two lofty sandstone pylons form a centralised gateway flanked by two 6-metre high statues of seated pharaohs. Set designer David Fleischer's imposing scheme is guided by symmetry and fantastic realism, providing three doorways as entry points on the edifice. Further access is achieved via left and right forecourt sides as well as steps from the sands up to it. Fleischer gives Halliday much to work with. Halliday obliges with rewarding results, commendably conveying the expected pageantry with vivid and uncomplicated effectiveness as he carefully juxtaposes a large community chorus (alongside 7 members of the Opera Australia Chorus) with scenes of dramatic intimacy and reserves of sensitivity.

Two well-behaved camels transport their cargo appropriately. Local surf lifesavers assist in presenting the spoils of war (a smiling nod to the oddity of it) in Act 2's famous moment as part of a gorgeously rendered and sung triumphal celebration of victory,  Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside / "Glory to Egypt, to Isis!" and Elise May's dynamic choreography of her 10 flexible dancers from Expressions Dance Company weaves itself eye-catchingly without intrusion on proceedings. The creative picture is enhanced by Anna Cordingley's stylised ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian costumes that punch their shimmering beauty through with vibrancy and cohesiveness and David Walter's lighting design that captures everything from the colossal to the focused with exciting and evocative moods.

Anna-Louise Cole as Aida
Fine pageantry aside - fireworks included - the turns and tension of the story of forbidden love between the Ethiopian slave princess Aida and the captain of the Egyptian army Radamès are skilfully driven by a strong cast of soloists.

Signalling what should be more big roles to come, soprano Anna-Louise Cole is exquisite in the title role as Aida (which she shares with Natalie Aroyan), depicting her with an affecting multi-dimensional spirit that captures everything from the gently feminine to the defiant and coercive. Cole sings with highly attractive vocal richness, expression and poise while exhibiting an easy comfort across a broad range to elevate the demands on every account. If there was just one moment to keep close in Cole's performance, it would be the burning tenderness brought to Act 3's Qui Radamès verra .. O patria mia / "Oh, my dear country!", in which Aida waits for Radamès outside the Temple of Isis on the eve of his wedding to Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt. The crowd acknowledged it enthusiastically.

Arnold Rawls as Radamès
In fact, Act 3's entirety is a riveting and emotion-charged highlight both in direction and delivery, centring around Aida's cornered heart that faces loyalty to her father Amonasro and love for Radamès.

As Radamès, robust tenor Arnold Rawls powerfully invokes the warrior spirit and gives it unwavering vocal muscularity in a Goliathan and most convincing outing. But Rawls, just as marvellously, expresses Radamès heart in passionately warm tones in his love for Aida and for country, soaring through Act 1's Celeste Aida / "Heavenly Aida" in a thrilling opening aria full of melting resonance and command. Showing both the authoritative and affectionately paternal sides of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, resonant and dusky baritone Michael Honeyman is the third in the trio of best performances.

Although at ease and beauty in top-range rage with her lush, dark mezzo-soprano, Sian Pendry's angulated-acted and overwrought-directed Amneris (whose role she shares with Milijana Nikolic) becomes an overdramatised distraction. There's pleasing firmness and openness in Gennadi Dubinsk's High Priest Ramfis and heavy bass solidity in David Hibbarb's steadfast King of Egypt. Two minor roles are filled impressively with tenor Stuart Haycock's strident-voiced Messenger and Leah Thomas as the delicately sweet-sounding High Priestess. The Opera Australia Community Chorus, in a range of roles from Egyptian soldiers and Ethiopian slaves to priests and priestesses, move with confidence and sing in excellent form.

Michael Honeyman as Amonasro
Behind the scenes keeping Verdi's score in eloquent and resplendent form, conductor Tahu Matheson leads an outstanding team from Opera Australia Orchestra and Griffith University student musicians. The contrasts between expert billowing woodwind and crisp brass playing brilliantly compliment the warm string section, which the cellos and double basses support with beautifully cushioned passages. Much credit goes to sound designer Adrian Riddell in attaining such high standards in the acoustic execution of music and song in an outdoor setting.

In Act 4's final scene in which Radamès is sealed in the vault of the Temple of Vulcan and where Aida had previously snuck into, the lighting on the sandstone central gateway is evocative enough to make a convincingly airless end to a night in which not a breath of wind blew to drive the sand. The suffocation is palpable, the effect breathless as Cole's Aida and Rawls' Radamès unite in death. And after the scaffold, fibreglass, gantries and low-backed beach chairs are removed, the picture-book-brought-to-dazzling-life quality of this Aida will remain for those who took the journey.

The local community of Coolangatta is waiting for the next project. So will those who'll want to visit again from far and wide. Griffith Opera on the Beach, @OperaAustralia #OperaBeach, is one of the national companies great and outreaching endeavours.

Opera Australia, Griffith Opera on the Beach
Coolangatta Beach, Gold Coast
Until 30th September.

Production Photographs: Scott Belzner