Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The 4th Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations
- 2018 -

Revealed via Twitter @OperaChaser on 27th December 2018 commencing at 5pm
Dromana, Victoria.

Every night of the year, opera takes to the stage and impresses its musical, vocal and emotive force on audiences anywhere from Adelaide to Zurich and Reykjavik to Cape Town, from mega-cities to rural outposts, stages big and small. Annual global audience number the tens of millions and people continue to be drawn to its artistic mystique on both sides of the curtain.

This year I was drawn to 64 diverse opera productions in 16 cities across 4 continents. I'm proud of the exceptional work and standards I see from companies large and small, together with the innovative ways I see from those that strive to connect with a wider audience. Opera is alive and will forever remain so.

The 4th Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations are an opportunity to reflect on the year once again and are dedicated to all who have contributed in sharing their artistic and creative pursuits by nourishing their audiences with immeasurable and lasting enjoyment.

Thank you to all involved in creating the ephemeral beauty of opera in performance. Again, there is no little ceremony, no trophy and no prize, but I sincerely hope that these awards bring a little pleasure to the deserved artists who bring excellence to the art of opera and all who continue to dig deep into their artistic, dramatic and creative energies.

OperaChaser Award for Outstanding Production, Melbourne:
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia
Photo: Jeff Busby

2018 OperaChaser Awards, Melbourne 

From 26 productions

Outstanding Production
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

Outstanding Production - Independent
The Handmaid's Tale, Gertrude Opera, Yarra Valley Opera Festival

Outstanding Director
Tama Matheson
Metamorphosis, Opera Australia

Outstanding Director - Independent
Linda Thompson
The Handmaid's Tale, Gertrude Opera, Yarra Valley Opera Festival

Outstanding Conductor 
Pietari Inkinen
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

Outstanding Conductor - Independent
Anthony Negus
Tristan und Isolde, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Armando Noguera
Title role, William Tell, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role - Independent
Daniel Sumegi
Baron Ochs, Der Rosenkavalier, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Siobhan Stagg
Mélisande, Pelléas et Mélisande, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role - Independent
Lee Abrahmsen
Isolde, Tristan und Isolde, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Nicholas Jones
David, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role - Independent
Steven Gallop
Marke, Tristan und IsoldeMelbourne Opera

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Dominica Matthews
Flora, La traviata, Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role - Independent
Emily Burke
Aunt Lydia, The Handmaid's Tale, Gertrude Opera, Yarra Valley Opera Festival

Outstanding Ensemble
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

Outstanding Ensemble - Independent
Der Rosenkavalier, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Set Design
Mia Stensgaard
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

Outstanding Set Design - Independent
Christina Logan-Bell, Der Rosenkavalier, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Costume Design
Anja Vang Kragh
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

Outstanding Costume Design - Independent
Lucy Wilkins
Der Rosenkavalier, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Lighting Design
Joseph Mercurio, Pelléas et Mélisande, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Lighting Design - Independent
John Collopy
Otello (Rossini), Melbourne Opera

OperaChaser Commendation for Outstanding Production, Australia:
Hamlet, State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide Festival
Photo: Tony Lewis

2018 OperaChaser Commendations, Australia

From 5 productions seen in Adelaide, Perth and Sydney

Outstanding Production
Hamlet, State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide Festival

Outstanding Director
Neil Armfield
Hamlet, State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide Festival

Outstanding Conductor
Erin Helyard
Artaserse, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Allan Clayton
Title role, Hamlet, State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide Festival

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Jessica Pratt
Title role, Lucia di Lammermoor, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Russell Harcourt
Megabise, Artaserse, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Julie Lea Goodwin
Musetta, La bohème, Opera Australia

Outstanding Ensemble
Artaserse, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Set Design
Dan Potra
La bohème, Opera Australia

Outstanding Costume design
Roger Kirk
The Cunning Little Vixen, West Australian Opera, Perth

Outstanding Lighting Design
Jenny Hector
The Howling Girls, Sydney Chamber Opera, Sydney

Commendation for Outstanding Production, International:
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival 2018, Bayreuth
Photo: Enrico Nawrath
2018 OperaChaser Commendations, International

From 33 productions seen in 12 cities: Dubai, Singapore, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Carmel CA, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Fort Worth, Denver and Bayreuth

Outstanding Production
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival 2018, Bayreuth

Outstanding Director
Barrie Kosky
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival 2018, Bayreuth

Outstanding Conductor
Christian Thielemann
LohengrinBayreuth Festival 2018, Bayreuth

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Maxim Mironov
Orpheus, Orpheus and Eurydice, LA Opera, Los Angeles

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Adela Zahari
Gilda, Rigoletto, LA Opera, Los Angeles

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Günther Groissböck
Gurnemanz, ParsifalBayreuth Festival 2018, Bayreuth

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Jamie Barton
Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, Roberto Devereux, SF Opera, San Francisco

Outstanding Ensemble
Roberto Devereux, SF Opera, San Francisco

Outstanding Set Design
Rebecca Ringst
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival 2018, Bayreuth

Outstanding Costume Design
Rosa Loy
Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival 2018, Bayreuth

Outstanding Lighting Design
Connie Yun
Béatrice et Bénédict, Seattle Opera, Seattle

Once again, thank you to all!

^ links to reviews not penned by myself

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Favourite moments as part of "What Melbourne Loved in 2018, Part 9"

Published 21st December, 2018 as part of the blog Sometimes Melbourne in "What Melbourne Loved in 2018, Part 9"

Favourite moments in 2018

As far as opera went, a rather well-balanced season of works fired up the local scene. I’m not giving too much away right now because all will be revealed in my humble Twitter evening on 27 December in the Fourth Annual OperaChaser Awards, my fun way of acknowledging the production achievements and breadth of talent across the medium.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia
Of the government-funded companies, Opera Australia pulled off a riveting little masterpiece for its first foot in the door with Malthouse Theatre for Brian Howard’s Metamorphosis. I haven’t ever experienced the Malthouse feel so capacious and director Tama Matheson brought together an insightful fusion of disturbing drama and discordant soundscape and transformed it into an extraordinary and inquiring theatrical experience.

I also loved director Kasper Holten’s wildly imaginative interpretation of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia’s big-budget co-production with London’s Royal Opera. What was so rewarding about this production was how Holten’s hybrid storytelling mixed theatrical illusion with characters reinterpreted as part of the theatre and it still leaves so much to ponder. 

As state company Victorian Opera’s appearances on the calendar in Melbourne were thin, it seemed so wasteful that such a seductive and ethereal quality that was created for Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was all but over in just two performances. A superlative cast, creatives and young musicians from ANAM worked marvellously together to produce a work of exceptionally high standard. 

Der Rosenkavalier, Melbourne Opera
On the independent scene, Melbourne Opera continued to pull off some ambitious and exquisitely staged hard-hitting work. In particular, there’ll be mentions for Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Smaller independent players were less prominent but Gertrude Opera made history in bringing Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale to the stage in its Australian premiere. Ruders’s score is a spectacular conglomeration of sonic form and director Linda Thompson gave its disturbing story an absolutely thrilling account in a knockout simple production as part of her inaugural Yarra Valley Opera Festival. 

For more, come join me with champagne on Twitter @OperaChaser at 5 pm, 27 December, for the enjoyment it gives me to announce all. 

Looking forward to in 2019

I’m looking forward to everything Melbourne can do in showcasing the art of opera. At least the year will be starting well with more Wagner in February with not one, but two fully staged productions: Melbourne Opera’s The Flying Dutchman and Victorian Opera’s Parsifal. It’s 2020 I’m concerned about. After so much gorgeously produced Wagner works Melbourne has been treated to in the last few years, what will it be like without him? 

SM: I see shows vicariously though Paul. He sees work I'll never have the chance to see (os) but I feel like I have when I read his reviews.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Showcasing its high-tension drama, Pagliacci stands alone marvellously at Opera San José

Pagliacci, Leoncavallo’s compact two-act opera with prologue is so often paired with and spoken of in the same breath as Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana - an almost inseparable 'Cav and Pag' to friends of opera - that it’s not only surprising to see it dislodged from its usual companion but given the chance to stand alone. Opera San José has done just that. Jammed with lust, betrayal, jealousy and violence, there’s a thrilling and high-tension drama at play to make an all up 90-minute evening that includes a 25-minute interval feel like it gives more than enough punch. Given so much passion and commitment to quality as it has, Opera San José showcased the work marvellously.

Opera San José Chorus, Pagliacci
Chuck Hudson’s direction is loaded with vibrancy and ardour. The story’s rustic Calabrian village setting is honoured, although the original 1860s timeframe appears updated decades later in Cathleen Edwards’ vibrant, beautifully detailed costumes. Hudson fills it with life and colour, busy without overpowering the drama and focused directly on the heart when desired. Two-storey stuccoed walls, arched openings and a railed staircase enclose a central piazza as part of Andrea Bechert’s spatially explorative set design. A timber platform in the centre provides the scene for the itinerant troupe’s entertainment. 

The plot’s parallel with the painful realities satirised in a comic sketch by stock characters of commedia dell'arte provides ideal verismo material which resonates in Leoncavallo’s lush and thrashing, hair-raising music. In the pit, conductor Christian Reif worked the tempi favourably and allowed the music to breath with the singers. The OSJ Orchestra played soundly, the strings particularly striking with their gossamer clarity and smooth crescendos. The orchestra’s expertise was cemented in the oft-performed Intermezzo (starting Act 2), driving it with depth and feeling.

A superb show of voices and acting flexibility far exceeded expectation. As the lustful and vengeful Tonio, Anthony Clark Evans struck every note with compelling emotion with his phenomenal baritone that is altogether ample, heavyweight and supple. Clark Evans led with a riveting prologue, reminding the audience that behind the actors the show is about real people.

Anthony Clark Evans, Maria Natale and Cooper Nolan in Pagliacci
Blazing soprano Maria Natale was perfectly cast to portray a determined Nedda, singing her with full- throttled lushness and freedom. Natale’s brilliantly nuanced depiction in successive encounters with her suspicious husband Canio to the perverted Tonio and then to Silvio her lover showed how capable she is as an artist. And in Nedda’s part as Colombina, Natale lit up the stage-within-a-stage with comic charm before the doom draws achingly over her demeanour. 

Broad, impressive emotionally layered tenor Cooper Nolan thoroughly convinced in firing Canio’s jealousy and rage, yet contrastingly gave strong sympathetic soul to the opera’s most famous aria, “Vesti la giubba”. 

Emmett O’Hanlon‘s good looks and generously burnished baritone complimented Natale’s striking Nedda and as Beppe, tenor Mason Gates might not have the same firmness in the voice as his colleagues but sported a handsome bronzed tone and expressive clout. Gates sure could entertain the village folk and the audience too in his part as Arlecchino with juggling, cushion-spinning and backflips, tricks I’ve never seen an opera singer do. And in wonderfully rich voice, the women of the chorus appeared particularly devoted in spirit to their village counterparts, outdoing the men who occasionally drifted out of unison. 

The drama’s sense of gloom in a setting of festivity was always present and the unforgivable brutality inflicted on a woman was duly felt. To Opera San José, an exceptional job done in showing Pagliacci’s true colours and contemporary relevance!

Opera San José
California Theatre
Until 2nd December, 2018

Production Photos: Pat Kirk

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Splendid highlights but Heggie and Scheer's operatic adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life misses the mark at San Francisco Opera

It’s blessed with a cast of strong singers, it follows the story in director Frank Capra’s 1946 film more or less as you know it and there are many gorgeous highlights in San Francisco Opera’s east coast premiere of Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Disappointingly, it’s also pumped with sugary entertainment and doesn’t pull at the heartstrings like it could. 

Golda Schultz as Clara and the Angel Quartet, It's a Wonderful Life
Imagining having never been born as George Bailey experiences it in Capra’s enduring classic is knowingly impossible. Sometimes we’ve wished it ourselves. Quite possibly, it’s been wished upon us - many a parent would regret uttering those words. But the light that shines through Capra’s story shows the hope that, when life goes spiralling out of control and one is reminded that they touch and enrich the lives of so many around them, there can be remedy from darkness and hardship. 

Imagining Capra’s film told through the art of opera doesn’t seem so difficult. Capra’s film, which he based loosely on the short story and booklet by Philip Van Doren Stern, The Greatest Gift, has many ingredients that lend itself to opera. While recognising that an oversimplification of suicidal circumstances exists in the storytelling, when George is on the brink of suicide, he is given the chance to face life again. Here, it’s not by the genial Clarence of the movie, but a guardian angel of the female sex called Clara. In a pre-performance talk, Heggie gives a solid reason for the change: the angel is given greater presence in his work and the female voice gives the contrast in voice needed. Getting across the palatable sentimentality, dry wit and  cozy mix of morbidity and cheer that resides in the film is far more difficult. 

William Burden as George Bailey and Golda Schultz as Clara
Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer take the more popular road. Heggie’s music is both rich and lightweight in style, mostly melodic and brings moments with appealing hybridity of operatic power and musical ebullience. Scheer cuts and utilises many of the lines from the original film and adds a little padding to provide context. 

But something in the concoction is unbalanced. How on earth could the duo think their dreamt up goofy Polynesian dance called the “Mekee-Mekee” was going to lift Capra’s narrative tune? What was a morsel of a reference to young George’s National Geographic subscription and his idea of exotic adventures in the film is turned into a full-blown musical trivialisation of the greater poignant picture, not to mention its sheer cultural misappropriation. Worse, its upbeat tune that begins to sound more like an advertising jingle keeps on appearing as a bemusing motif. And if there wasn’t already enough patriotic fare in an American’s day, there’s a prominent glorious anthem that celebrates going to war as one big community in another preferably discarded number.

Apart from the cheesy choreography that slips in and comic attempts that don’t always cut it, director Leonard Foglia fortunately moves his cast around admirably, giving them much interactive life.

 Andriana Chuchman and William Burden
Foglia, however, has to deal with Robert Brill’s tricky set design, a series of receding rectangular panels that looms above while similarly scaled podiums traverse a raked stage. Conceptually, it provides reference to a city grid for the fictitious town of Bedford Falls and the gravestones of a cemetery where George’s brother Harry is buried in George’s unborn state. Primarily, it’s an ‘attic’ of doors, one for every day of George’s life, that feature projections and open up to allow life to spill out. It’s a decent idea but for the entire two acts nothing changes - seemingly little in Brian Nason’s lighting design as well - and you begin to hope nobody trips on the edges. Emphasising the dazzle aspect, David C. Woolard’s beautifully tailored and smart 1940s costumes lean on the side of elegance rather than everyday streetwear. How could Mr Potter’s tenants in the slums make there move into George’s Bailey Park as homeowners in such awfully good attire?

Despite the shortcomings, Heggie, Scheer and Foglia’s artistry combine in giving affecting emotion to character-focused scenes. Fervent, theatre-filling tenor William Burden sings with gusto as George Bailey, a man whose dreams get clipped by his own selfless attitude. Burden lacks some of the charisma and step of an all-round loveable lad but he builds his performance splendidly, up to the explosive highlight when $8000 is all that lies between him and his life. 

George’s devoted wife Mary is convincingly portrayed and sung in refined velvety class by soprano Andriana Chuchman. And as Clara, angel second class who is both saving George and depending on him in her mission to gain her wings, sapphire-gleaming soprano Golda Schultz soars radiantly in voice as a star of the stage. The two sopranos are given some of the most exciting and colourific operatic music and it raises the drama as hoped. In another highlight, Schultz and Chuchman share a touching ethereal duet in Act 2 that ponders on why George can’t see what they see in him. Clara’s presence is almost always felt on stage from the moment she sings from her swing in the night sky over Bedford Falls and Schultz gives her angel warmth and potency throughout.

Joshua Hopkins, William Burden and Keith Jameson
Smaller roles are appealingly filled that include a deliciously harmonised Angel Quartet with a bit of attitude (Sarah Cambidge, Ashley Dixon, Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell). Muddled minded Uncle Billy comes off perfectly in characterful tenor Keith Jameson’s well-detailed performance. Suave and reverberant baritone Joshua Hopkins’ effortless style is so captivating you might wish there was more vocal writing for George’s brother Harry and Rod Gilfry’s more broad, cavernous baritone suits the wheelchair-bound villain of the story - an unexpected handsome Mr. Potter.

At the musical helm, conductor Patrick Summers introduced the score with vitality, depth and a keen sense of balance with the onstage artists. Stylistic changes in the music, however, occasionally caught the singers out on the opening beat. Still, Heggie’s ability to align and overlay one style with another shone through. In this case, it wasn’t necessarily the formula hoped for. 

It looked like the average age of Thursday evening’s audience was north of 50 and it felt like Heggie’s holiday season work didn’t quite work in the opera house and isn’t yet ready for Broadway. 

It’s a Wonderful Life 
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 9th December, 2018

Production Photos: Corey Weaver

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Entertaining hocus pocus takes the spotlight in a dreamy Hansel and Gretel at LA Opera

Director and designer Doug Fitch’s original 2006 production of 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel for LA Opera is back with all its entertaining hocus pocus. Packed with enchanting visual effects, charming google-eyed critters and blessed with a fabulous cast, it’s both opera for adults and a fairytale come-to-life for kids. And for just over a couple of hours, parents can leave the parenting to the moral training that’s found in this, one of the many didactic tales recorded by the brothers Grimm. Kids won’t have trouble staying up late. And when bedtime comes, dreams may very well be fired by the spectacle. 

Liv Redpath as Gretel and Sasha Cooke as Hansel
Siblings Hansel and Gretel, two country kids of struggling parents, are more or less learning to balance responsibility with fun and adventure. Fitch similarly appears to be doing the same with Humperdinck’s lushly orchestrated score and Richard Spark’s updated rhyming English libretto. Utilising the irresistible melodic beauty that runs through the music, Fitch enlivens his characters with magnified personality and adds magical touches in a way that keeps the stage busy and kids alert and happy.

During a perfectly settling overture, the flat painted ‘stage curtain’ depicting Hansel and Gretel’s cottage near the woods sets the scene and works its tricks. Smoke billows from the chimney, the stream begins to flow, Mother opens the door to sweep out the leaves and a flying broom darts across the picture. But then, it breaks apart and the third dimension is marvellously created when a storybook pop-up-like interior of the cottage rolls in.

If Hansel and Gretel don’t endear instantly, they’re sure to soon after as they sing their zippy song of the rice-cream dance while the furniture comes alive around them. As Hansel, rich and robust-voiced mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke impressed to no end in her LA Opera debut on opening night. Cooke outlines her music with just the right amount of oomph and resonance to fill the voluminous theatre and her excitable boyishness both looks and sounds more than convincing. 

Susan Graham as the Witch and Sasha Cooke as Hansel
Liv Redpath’s gorgeously sweetened soprano is a perfect match for her spirited, pretty Gretel. Redpath’s biggest vocal asset is a soaring upper range highlighted with polished crystal notes and she deploys them as if in her element. The two blend together adorably with lots of physical comradeship and duets that touch the heart. One of the more famous folk music-inspired tunes, Act 2’s "Evening Prayer",  is a special one that showcases the pair’s gift to capture a child’s innocence and hope most tenderly and affectingly.

The production’s big feature is its puppets but neither a song nor a mutter comes from these various furry, beaked, crawling, bobbling and ogling creatures who dreamily illuminate the woods. They don’t turn out to be particularly threatening but parade about more like friends of the Sesame Street clan.

Ripe-voiced mezzo-soprano Susan Graham’s wildly eccentric cigarette-smoking Witch - a kewpie doll-like wreck decked out in yellow tights, pink frills and waving her spoon wand - turned out to be more entertaining than wicked. Graham is clearly having fun with her own adventure, wielding her vocals in often comic declamations, hamming it up and going for a flying leap across the heights (she almost gets away with making believe it’s really her).

Craig Colclough as Father and Melody Moore as Mother
Bass-baritone Craig Colclough’s Father arrives home from a successful day of broom-selling in brilliantly large and firm voice, a harmless sort of chap with beer at the fore of his mind and a tone to warm the cockles. It almost seems that rich and potent soprano Melody Moore’s Mother is dealt the most fearsome treatment, first singing off-set as her face, in oversized projection, gives a scolding look, then entering the cottage in anger since the chores haven’t been done. 

There’s great affection, and a little cheekiness with it, between the parents. When they find their children, their joy is touching - only after the Witch’s house breaks up in a tornado-like spiral and the cute chorus of freed gingerbread sweet-voiced children do a little swaying dance. Sopranos Taylor Raven and Sarah Vautour bring mellifluousness and sparkle to songs of sleep and waking up as the Sandman and the Dew Fairy.

Driving it all forward at a moderate pace and in grand style, conductor James Conlon brought rich luminosity to the score. Great beauty was on show in exposed orchestral passages, notably in the extended Wagnerian intensity of the orchestral ending to Act 2's dream sequence following the “Evening Prayer”. The pit musicians were marvellous. 

In the pre-performance talk, Conlon mentioned he first encountered the opera as a 12 year-old boy and that for LA Opera he was conducting it for the first time. Indeed, Conlon made a strong success of it. And who knows, somewhere amongst a new generation of young ones beguiled by the experience, there are little individuals who one day will be actively involved in the art of opera too. 

Hansel and Gretel 
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 15th December, 2018

Production Photos: Karen Almond

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A fabulously staged Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from Opera Australia in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 14th November and in print 15th November 2018

As the only comedy among Wagner’s mature operas, the laughs don’t come thick and fast in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. But Wagner’s gargantuan work of more than 4 hours - with its elements of interpreted baggage – beats dryly in its celebration of the underdog and artistic tradition. 

The cast of Opera Australia's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
On the surface, Opera Australia’s imaginative new co-production by director Kasper Holten explores the themes with touching nobility. It’s also fabulously staged with swathes of spectacular regalia (sets by Mia Stensgaard, costumes by Anja Vang Kragh, lighting by Jesper Kongshaug). Holten, however, doesn’t simply offer the script without putting forward some kind of resistance. 

The opera’s first focus is on preparations for a rigorously regulated singing competition. The denigrating trophy is Eva, the daughter of a mastersinger. But Eva is in love with Walther, who needs to learn the rules fast. 

Walther’s mentor, Hans Sachs, recognises beauty in Walther’s passionate style. Sachs is the second focus whose ideologies become thrashed out in extended introspection. What Holten creates is a hybrid reading.

Act 1 packs a powerful Art Deco punch. Action is moved from the story’s Renaissance setting to a kind of elitist secret society club, an enormous vaultlike room resembling the innards of a grand organ. By Act 2’s fantastically giddy end, it’s all simply theatrical illusion, a drama Sachs appears the writer of.

Natalie Aroyan, Stefan Vinke and chorus, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
In its breathtaking Act 3 conclusion, Holten brilliantly jackknifes the nationalism that gushes in declarations of “Honour your German Masters” with Eva gesturing the last assault. No explanation necessary why Hitler could see what he wanted to see in it for propagandist uses.

Performances shone in all directions. Burnished and succulent baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky depicted Sachs superbly as an ambiguous sort not entirely comfortable in his soul-searching skin. 

Natalie Aroyan was deliciously radiant as Eva. When Stefan Vinke hit his stride, he was formidable as Walther. And the comic seasoning would’ve been stale without Warwick Fyfe’s sensational turn as the sneering object of ridicule, Beckmesser. Daniel Sumegi’s stolid Veit Pogner, Nicholas Jones’s happy-go-lucky David and Dominica Matthews’ perky Magdalene all impressed. 

And how welcome it was having Pietari Inkinen back, conducting with energy and careful support after two eloquently driven distant Melbourne Ring seasons.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 22nd November, 2018


Production Photos: Busby

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A superb night championing imaginative Aussie composition by the ANAM musicians in Celebrating Brett Dean at the Melbourne Recital Centre

How often do we get to hear an all-Aussie program of symphonic music on the concert stage? Unforgivably, rarer than hen’s teeth. But on Friday night, a deluxe treat consisting of four works by Australian composers - Richard Meale, Brett Dean, George Lentz and Lisa Illean - was offered to the public in a beautifully curated and compact concert at Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elizabeth Murdoch Hall. 

Brett Dean and the ANAM Orchestra
Acclaimed Australian composer and former artistic director of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), Brett Dean, was back in Melbourne to conduct the latest talent that oozes from the South Melbourne academy as well as guest players. Championing home-grown music, Dean brought something new to experience. In the end, it seemed that even the most conservative classical ears might easily give up Mozart and Beethoven, together with a shortlist of other concert-favoured names, and give themselves to music that challenges and charms our acoustic sensibilities. 

It wasn’t only an all-Aussie program that connected the works, all four on the list shared so much as far as orchestral imagination, exquisite sonic depth and impressionistic visions were concerned. To the ear, absent were formally structured patterns of melody and rhythm. This was a captivating and dissonant music that dispersed amorphously, as a puddle does, and infiltrated the air with a long afterglow.

The evening began with Clouds now and then, a short composition by the late Richard Meale. It was written in 1969 but spans time effortlessly with its extraordinary picture-building music based on a 17th century haiku by Matsua Basho. Fragility and the beauty and eeriness of nature at night characterise the work, creating a distant contemplative realm. Watching the large orchestra of more than 80 ANAM musicians focused on producing sounds of glorious delicacy in itself was rewarding. Percussion features large, including wonderful dark and hollowed croaking but the lightest brass playing, yielding the most sublime transparency, was particularly impressive.

Dean’s Australian premiere of his 23-minute song cycle, From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction), written with Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn, followed. Based on key moments in Hamlet and Ophelia’s fraught and oppressive relationship, its 7 parts give away something of the kind of atmosphere Dean established in his celebrated recent opera, Hamlet, commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera and premiered in 2017 before receiving its Australian premiere at this year’s Adelaide Festival. 

A thrilling and, at times, distant dynamism  in the orchestral writing - including some hair-raising metallic string playing - underpin vocals that deliver a range of expression from fluid lyricism through to haunting echoes and declamatory force.

Brett Dean, Lorina Gore and Topi Lehtipuu
Compelling, confident vocals from Australian soprano Lorina Gore and youthful warmth from Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu - backed by fine musicianship - blended in a thoroughly focused enactment. Gore, who sang the role of Ophelia in Adelaide, particularly stood out for her brilliant flexibility and clarity. Gore’s crazed flights and angular shifts came in a performance of great physicality that, altogether, exposed Ophelia’s disturbed psychological state. Lehtipuu depicted something of a chivalrous Hamlet, mildly authoritative but often needing more flesh on his golden tone. When Gore took leave of the stage in a trance-like state as the work came to a hushed expiratory conclusion, the feeling was that, in its entire breadth, Dean had brought poetic sound to Shakespeare’s verse in a gripping dramatic dream sequence. 

After interval, Lisa Illean’s Land’s End, composed in 2015, received its first Melbourne performance. Just over 10 minutes in length, the work’s sensitive connection to visual art is expressed in music of seductive and evocative beauty. Illean states in the program notes, “...the ensemble is conceived as one instrument which glows and breaths from the inside.” It seemed realised genuinely so in the reduced orchestra of around 20 players. Illean used the ocean surface as the framework for exploration and the resultant music was one to bask in. Free-moving, wind-blown and swaying in unexpected frequency, Land’s End played like a mediation for one lying horizontal on a lilo at sea in complete isolation without fear. 

The final piece for the evening was George Lentz’s Jerusalem (after Blake), composed between 2011-14 for orchestra and electronics and brought together around 80 musicians on stage and at the rear of the hall. Inspired by William Blake’s foreboding poetry and artwork, Lentz’s 25-minute composition draws on the apocalyptic elements and fall of man that Blake wrote about and questions how far or different our contemporary world is from it. It concludes with a reverent and eerie homage to the passengers of the ill-fated flight MH370 who never made contact to their love ones in gentle brass sounds played via mobile phone from the back of the hall.

Lentz’s extraordinarily orchestrated work is packed with colossal energy and was released in a rich sound-enveloped experience on Friday night in its Melbourne premiere one might easily ponder. After rising from distant foghorn-evoked brass and building with punctuated intensity with oriental gongs, strings begin a high-pitched screech before the brass fades back into the distance to make a bracing opening. 

The score makes multiple transformations that often seem to mimic sounds often ignored in our urban and industrial environment, like the sound of a train passing in the distance and the white noise of modernity. Especially remarkable is the way in which Lentz disguises his musical source and creates sounds that belie their origin - violins that whistle like woodwind and double basses that power the babble of far-off voices. Further along, the frenzied, theatrical and pockets of utmost delicacy are captured strikingly by Dean’s apparent enthusiasm for the work. Gratifyingly, Dean’s team of musicians never seemed to stray from playing with excellence, no doubt sharing the privilege of performing this gripping and thrillingly communicative composition. 

When the introduction to four vivid works from four of our county’s great modern composers was over, the only thing that felt missing was the sense that the concert platform can do so much more in exposing audiences to music that pours from Australian creative minds. I’m optimistic we will see this kind of experience again soon. 

Celebrating Brett Dean
Part of the Series: Australian National Academy of Music
Melbourne Recital Centre
9th November, 2018