Sunday, February 25, 2018

Polish National Opera's quasi-balletic Eugene Onegin puts director Mariusz Treliński centre stage in Dubai

Following the shimmering, eye-catching theatricality of their 2005 production of Aida at Dubai Opera last week, Polish National Opera’s Eugene Onegin offered a poignant, thought-provoking and worthy contrast. Rich in symbolic detail, the production exudes a fresh and inventive style that has been part of the company’s collection for 16 years since it first premiered in 2002.

Olga Busuioc as Tatyana and Michał Partyka as Eugnen Onegin 
Directed to extract as much potency as possible from the text, esteemed Polish film, theatre and opera director, Mariusz Treliński, incorporates much into the storytelling of Tchaikovsky’s penetrating three-act episodic examination of unrequited love based on Pushkin's verse novel of the same name. In what appears to be a concerted interpretation of the expressive nature of Tchaikovsky’s libretto (for which original verses from Pushkin's work were used), Treliński’s Eugene Onegin is a poetically driven and simmering drama all the way through.

Sung with impressive and evocative use of the text, the beautifully shaped lustrous soprano of Olga Busuioc’s dreamy Tatyana and the deeply grained baritone of Michał Partyka’s arrogant, predator-like Onegin made a powerful pair in their disquieting depiction of love and rejection.

“Once more Onegin has crossed my path like a merciless ghost!” Tatyana expresses in the final act, shocked when Onegin reappears years after her being rejected by him. Created as a pivotal metaphor, the haunting, white-coated, silent figure of an old Onegin remained a constant and powerful presence on stage. Likewise nameless (he isn’t credited in the program), this silent actor interacted, coerced, toyed and attacked Tatyana in a captivating performance.

Onegin, depicted as the sophisticated and intellectual gent, fiercely independent, cold-hearted and the generator of a trail of destruction - is he really so despicable? In a clever, perhaps ambiguous way, Treliński seems to punish him as harshly as society has marked him. Onegin sees life differently, he can see himself for who he is and, as for me, the more brutal the ghostly Onegin became, the more the creepy, black-coated real Onegin deserved our sympathy.

Michał Partyka as Eugene Onegin
Tatyana, seemingly receives less as she eventually becomes the stiff society wife of Prince Gremin and haughtily dismisses Onegin’s newly ignited passions. This third act’s parade of haute-couture fashions, elevated mechanical acting and Tatyana’s cemented aloofness, while all serving Treliński’s cause, nevertheless, felt less stabilising to the point of almost overwhelming music, voice and text. Overall, however, this regular use of angular, quasi-balletic style of acting, assisted by Emil Wesolowski’s choreography, added to the poetry of the drama.

Alongside the leading pair, rich and firmly supported mezzo-soprano Monika Ledzion as Tatyana’s outgoing sister Olga, and shiny tenor Pavlo Tostoy, as her unworldly and jealous boyfriend Lensky, sang with inspiring zealousness in sharing a touching contrast to Tatyana and Onegin. As Tatyana’s old attentive nanny Filippyevna, Anna Lubańska was a rich-voiced and robust presence while Joanna Motulewicz suitably and staunchly portrayed the pragmatic Larina, Tatyana’s mother and owner of the rural estate.

Sergii Magera’s short but excellent turn as a noble Prince Gremin came with a strong and glowing ember-toned bass and Aleksander Kruczek brought a little camp and colourful accompaniment and debonair flair with his warm and comforting lyrical tenor. As peasants, ballroom guests and aristocrats, the Polish National Opera Chorus kept in fine step but wavered in a disappointing show of harmony after such refined singing a week prior in Aida. Even Tchaikovsky’s score, expert as the musicians were, lacked integrated consistency when the full force of the Polish National Orchestra played under Andrei Yurkevich’s leadership. But the prominent willowy parts for woodwind were a pleasurable listen.

Act 2, Scene 1: The Ballroom of the Larin House, Eugene Onegin
And then there’s the apples, symbol of the forbidden fruit, in abundance on the Larina family estate. There was also the apple tree, a simple silhouetted cut-out that resembled dripping blood under which a chorus of maidens collected the apples in gentle dance and the scene at which Onegin delivered his sermon-like blunt rejection.

Treliński’s cinematic eye gave each episode intrigue as they unfold with ever-changing but slow-moving shifts. Boris Kudlička’s restrained set elements became especially effective under Felice Ross’ broad palette of vivid lighting. A gramophone used to accompany Olga and Lensky’s first-act dance places the story in the 1920s, helping to pinpoint Joanna Klimas’ part-austere, part-flamboyant and suitably demarcated costumes.

A great deal of satisfaction came from seeing Eugene Onegin in an interpretation that adjusts the lens on the titular character to give it quite a punch and shakeup. Marvellously sung as it was, it’s Treliński that stood centre stage in this instance.

Eugene Onegin
Polish National Opera Production
Dubai Opera
Until 22nd February

Production Photos: Teatr Wielki

Friday, February 16, 2018

Settling down to reflect great subtlety, a shimmering Aida opens at Dubai Opera

“Is that the one with the elephants?”, asked a colleague after I said I was off to see Verdi’s Aida at Dubai Opera. As far as I knew, there’d be no elephants but I guaranteed that having - amongst other strengths - a great exponent in the title role, Aida would be remembered for much more than an accompanying circus. That it did, with luxury casting in a shimmering production from Polish National Opera and directed with well-resolved sophistication by Roberto Laganà Manoli.

Act 2, Aida, Polish National Opera Production
American soprano Latonia Moore studded the evening with a powerhouse performance on Wednesday’s opening night in a role she has sung widely and gives stunning breath to. Moore’s vocal heft, dramatic colour and crystal diction all combined in a thoughtful and alluring account of the captured Ethiopian princess as the conflict between love and duty unfolded in the doomed love triangle with the Egyptian military commander Radamès (Rudy Park) and the pharaoh’s daughter Amneris (Anna Lubańska). There’s much to encapsulate in Aida’s interactions with her superior, lover and father but Moore makes each one a genuine and compelling expression of the slave-princess's circumstances.

As a trio of singers who could effortlessly turn on the volume, Act 1, however, was characterised more by a ferocity than subtlety of voice. They did eventually settle, Moore more quickly so. By story’s airless end, within an impressive stylised pyramid as Aida and Radamès walk rearwards in embrace (a clever touch that avoided clumsy lolling death throes), it was easy to shower plaudits on all.

As a robust soldierly Radamès, Park plied through the music with an impressive burning fervour, completely absorbing in the middle and lower domain, though on occasion, a little overextended at the top. There’s little private time Radamès and Aida enjoy but Park and Moore created a formidable pair. The lovers' Act 3 scene outside the Temple of Isis, where Aida had waited to meet with Radamès, was bathed in a moving and richly concocted and thrillingly sung emotive rendezvous.

Most striking below the highest notes, and as much able to sing out with purity and suppleness of tone, Lubańska’s dark, luscious and meaty mezzo-soprano made Amneris a force to be reckoned with. As Aida’s rival, Lubańska’s snaky Amneris isn’t all fire and fury and she could suppress the volume and add remarkable depth of soul when needed. One of the night’s many highlights included Lubańska and Moore’s Act 2 encounter as Amneris draws a confession from Aida that she is in love with Radamès in "Fu la sorte dell'armi a' tuoi funesta". With the incensed Amneris standing tall against a grief-stricken Aida on her knees, power and pity were augmented superbly.

We don’t meet Aida’s father, the King of Ethiopia, until he is brought before the Egyptian people as a prisoner of war well into Act 2. Despite looking like a few years could be added to his makeup, from the first moments Mikołaj Zalasiński made his appearance as Amonasro, his warm, fluid and burnished baritone gushed forth with masterful ease in a near faultless, intelligently crafted depiction of an astute and commanding leader.

Gravelly bass Grzegorz Szostak, as the implacable High Priest Ramfis, tended to sing with more directness without lifting textures from his words. A the other bass, a notably warmer one, Łukasz Konieczny gave polished authority as the King of Egypt. In smaller roles, Jeannette Bożałek brought clear angelic radiance to her offstage Voice of the High Priestess and Adam Zdunikowski administered his notes solidly as the Messenger. For all its rich Verdian chorus work, the Polish National Opera Chorus, particularly the men - even more so the deep resonant purring basses - sang with huge appeal, in excellently balanced parts and wonderful evenness.

Threaded with its triumphant magisterial splendour and dreamy orchestral delicacies, Maestro Patrick Fournillier’s sensitive conducting - showing great care in allowing the singers to rise radiantly above the music - shaped a soundscape of beauty and coherency. At his service, the Polish National Opera Orchestra suffered a handful of opening night jitters that began with unsettling wheezing string playing in the overture but, overall, smoothness and crispness reigned.

Act 4, Aida, Polish National Opera Production
Under Laganà Manoli’s direction, the work’s juxtaposition of intimacy, conflict and pageantry were given eye-catching theatricality as part of the story’s ancient Egyptian setting. Responsible also for the sumptuous sets and costume designs, Laganà Manoli’s overarching control of the stage resulted in a multitude of memorable tableaux, including a tremendous grand spectacle for the Act 2 Triumphal Chorus and Grand March and the act’s finale as Radamès earns Amneris’ hand in marriage. For this, with no elephants or a live animal of any sort, he was assisted by Emil Wesolowski’s atmospheric choreography for an agile troupe of dancers featuring both angular and arabesque forms.

Lofty relief-cut golden and marble pillars framed the stage with two full-width flights of steps that allow ample scope for the large contingent of performers in all their intricately-robed exotic splendour. With hues of opalescent blue and aqua, two raised plinths - providing a focus for solo singing and that could be joined as one - as well as full-height imposing relief-cut golden doors that, when closed, aided more intimate moments, satisfied expectations of the monumental. Further depth was created when the rear wall opened and became a canvas for various projections, including a view out to the pyramids in an overall dazzling but dreamy effect.

Although the popularity of Aida is likely the result of its incorporation and marketability of spectacle, when the stars align in a production that searches the story’s human factors, conservatively approached or not, the effect is ever more overwhelming. In this instance, Laganà Manoli’s scheme succeeds all sides.

Polish National Opera Production
Dubai Opera
Until 17th February

Production Photos: Teatr Wielki

Thursday, February 8, 2018

An accomplished Tristan and Isolde makes its mark from an increasingly ambitious Melbourne Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun in edited form, 8th February, 2018

The determination and ambitiousness that percolates within an increasingly confident Melbourne Opera came in the form of a musically secure, vocally accomplished and exciting production of Tristan and Isolde at the Palais Theatre Monday night. Apart from a minor technical hitch that saw temporary loss of surtitles and background projections, not even the disastrous cancellation of Friday night’s opening (due to an indisposed Isolde) impeded the quality of professionalism on display.

Lee Abrahmsen as Isolde and Neal Cooper as Tristan
Following successful productions of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, this gargantuan three-act work that explores love’s transcendental and intoxicating potency was an unequivocal achievement and one that positions the company high on a national level.

Blurring rationality and reason and tension between love and death, Wagner takes us to a space with music and drama in which plot gives way to mood and where the cogs of psychological states are surveyed in a story drawn from the medieval tale of the adulterous love between the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde.

Directed with overall appealing clarity by Suzanne Chaundy, the work is imbued with intelligently conceived symbolic features that demarcate each act despite missing the potential to mine the fervency of the Act 2's central love duet. And though designs feature various beautiful stage pictures (sets Greg Carroll with digital artists Yandell Walton and Keith Deverell) incorporating Lucy Wilkins’ eclectic costumes and Lucy Birkinshaw’s evocative lighting, the execution doesn’t appear fully resolved.

In a career-defining performance, soprano Lee Abrahmsen exhibited an ever-burning radiance both in voice and presence as Isolde, convincingly navigating Isolde’s complex emotional paths and doing so with a markedly penetrating top and robust middle range. The blazing colour and expression Abrahmsen gave as she awaits Tristan to join her in concealed bliss in Act 2 continued the startling trajectory she set up in a hugely demanding and fine first act.

Sarah Sweeting, Steven Gallop, Neal Cooper and Lee Abrahmsen
As her Tristan, Englishman Neal Cooper was superb in utilising his heated and muscular-voiced tenor and well-calibrated acting to great effect, sharing an effectual chemistry with Isolde and supplying Act 3 with searing emotion as he longs for Isolde and yearns for death.

Regular soloists at Melbourne Opera and a strong male chorus provided sizable support. Sarah Sweeting’s dark-hued and intuitive Brangäne, Michael Lampard’s loyal Kurwenal and Jason Wasley’s suspicious-eyed Melot all slotted in with solid depictions of character and Steven Gallop’s sympathetic King Marke was excellent.

But bringing in the expert Wagnerian and English conductor Anthony Negus was what paid off most impressively with a ravishing account of Wagner’s sublime score, particularly its thrilling crescendos, and played with meticulous sensitivity by the near-90 assembled musicians of Melbourne Opera Orchestra.

Tristan and Isolde
Melbourne Opera
Palais Theatre
Until 7th February 2018
Robert Blackwood Hall, 10th February

3.5 stars

Production Photos: Robin Halls