Friday, March 30, 2018

Experimentally brave and inventive, Sydney Chamber Opera's The Howling Girls gives voice to trauma

A wordless work without narrative inspired by trauma you search for associations within as you wait for the unexpected or just simply absorb - Sydney Chamber Opera’s experimentally brave The Howling Girls, currently in performance at Bay 20 of Carriageworks, will get you talking.

Soprano Jane Sheldon in The Howling Girls
As the collaborative result of composer Damien Ricketson and director Adena Jacobs’ abstract and inventive approach, The Howling Girls sprouted from the true and bizarre story of five young women who presented themselves at a Manhattan hospital, throats constricted and unable to swallow, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. And though convinced that debris had lodged in their throats, doctors found nothing.

Considering that opera’s focus is on the conveyance of thought and emotion via vocal musicality, this unusually libretto-less work runs against the grain yet manages to leave a powerful impression that highlights the vocal struggle to get there - in this case to communicate in the context of trauma, of collective grief and, through a sense of powerlessness, hysteria.

It begins in front of a shimmering black velvety curtain within a sleek white rectangular box frame. The lights dim to a blackness in which sight is taken away and given back to you in ever so slow a process - over what becomes half the work’s one hour duration - and illuminates something initially quite indistinguishable.

The first sounds to emanate are the quickening inhalations and exhalations that describe a sense of panic and the beginning of soprano Jane Sheldon’s remarkable agility, technique and stamina. The sound is close-mic’d, as part of Bob Scott’s encompassing sound design, to make it feel immediate and uncannily claustrophobic, amplifying every physiological aspect of vocalisation down to the sound of the throat moistening as it swallows to exhale. Ricketson’s first sounds come in the form of sporadic low-rumbling growls.

Teenagers from The House that Dan Built in The Growling Girls
Various vocal transformations occur, some reflecting the meditative chanting of Buddhist prayer, others a babble of vowel-like sounds in an ear-straining experience you hope to find a thread of coherence in. Eeriness pervades but it’s never frightening. During the slow-release of a single downlight the simplicity of Eugyeene Teh’s set design is revealed giving time to ponder Jacobs’ metaphorical tactic. I dare say, the rectangular white frame symbolises the mouth, the deep inky blackness the light-starved throat and the indistinguishable mass - what we realise later is a horizontal human form - the perceived debris that restricts verbal communication. And then, in a complete shock to the eyes as part of Jenny Hector’s startling lighting design, brightness reveals all as if to say there was no debris, just the psychological scarring its perceived presence causes.

Sheldon is joined by six talented teenage girls from the vocal ensemble, The House that Dan Built - Grace Campbell, Kittu Hoyne, Kiri Jenssen, Emily Pincock, Jayden Selvakumaraswamy, Sylvie Woodhouse. First appearing as demonising black long-haired creatures, then stripped to flesh-toned skins (costumes also by Eugyeene Teh), they exude the stereotyped dominance of masculine and vulnerability of the feminine. Sheldon appears in a gauze gown - armless, in a trance-like state and as proof of the voice we hear in negative territory. Voices integrate ethereally, hauntingly and perfectly piecing at times to expose the raw frequency of sound. Together with Ricketson’s underlying tense and misty soundscape - delivered by electroacoustic music and musical director Jack Symonds at theremin and keyboards - voice and music seem plasticised in an often indistinctive and compelling blend.

As a concept, The Howling Girls is experientially rewarding, highly visceral and sonically ingenious, captivating and intriguing in the way it has interpreted unimaginable trauma. Nonetheless, despite the many feelings it offers, you leave with little sense of emotional attachment, much like a doctor that performs his patient examination and prepares the cold diagnosis. The creative aspect of opera-making is always welcome - in this case you could say ‘opera installation’ - and, at the very least, The Howling Girls adds further depth and inspiration to the evolution of the art form.

The Howling Girls 
Sydney Chamber Opera
Bay 20, Carriageworks
Until 7th April, 2018

Production Photos: Zan Wimberley

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A few words about CitiOpera's dashing rehearsal of Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey the Immortal

Here’s a combination of rarities. In opera, the tenor rarely scores the title role but he does so here in Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov’s one act opera, Kashchey the Immortal, which premiered in Moscow in 1902. Even rarer is he the villain but, in this story based on a Russian fairy tale, that he is. It’s also a rarely performed work, only receiving its U.K. premiere in 1994 and it’s U.S. premiere earlier this year. Shortly, its first Australian outing takes the stage at Melbourne Recital Hall, on Sunday, in a concert performance presented by small local company CitiOpera - and its going to whip up a dark and shadowy evening, with a little radiance to finish. That’s the forecast after attending last night’s penultimate rehearsal at Victorian College of the Arts. Unfortunately, I won’t be in Melbourne on Sunday.

Kashchey is an evil so and so who holds the princess Tsarevna in captivity and whose immortality is safeguarded unless his cold-hearted daughter Kascheyevna sheds a tear. Tsarevna pines for her prince, Ivan-Korolevich, who she sees in a magic mirror with Kascheyevna who happens to fall in love with him. When Tsarevna comes face to face with Kascheyevna, she is moved by her admission of first love, kisses her and guess what? Tears. A chorus of ‘invisible voices’ announce Kashchey’s death and Kascheyevna turns into a willow, leaving prince and princess together again. Rimsky-Korsakov 

Seated from my perspective, CitiOpera's Kashchey the Immortal
CitiOpera Music Director Alan Cook conducted, the tempi providing engaging dramatic pace and the large 40-plus CitiOpera Orchestra played in great form. From where I was seated in a corner of a large VCA rehearsal room, the ‘piano’ string playing lost definition and the ‘forte’ brass overwhelmed but Rimsky-Korsakov’s lush orchestral sound was on show - the swells of turbulence, glassy trepidation, sinewy warmth and glory of optimism - music you can hear that provided later generations with fruit.

Sung in Russian, as Kashchey, Melbourne tenor Michael Lapiña powered over the orchestra magnificently, threatening of voice and comfortably delivering potency across a large range in a highly attractive and visceral performance. 

Russian-Australian mezzo-soprano Viktoria Bolonina - my first encounter with this promising and exciting young artist - flooded the rehearsal with a stunning display of grand vocal stature and physical immersion in her part as Kascheyevna. Assigned a thrilling set of notes to interpret, the luscious voiced Bolonina seductively deployed them with relaxed assurance, agility and purpose.

Petite Europe-based Australian soprano Christiana Aloneftis floated the voice with seemingly cautious delicacy, the top range clear and projecting strongly. Not so the lower areas which sank below the orchestra and out of earshot but Sunday will no doubt show the goods kept in reserve.

Versatile Melbourne baritone Raphael Wong brought warmth and vigour to his role as Ivan-Korolevich, with flesh on the notes and expressivity to colour it. And taking the bass role as Kashchey’s Storm Knight, Burya Bogatyr, Melbourne-based Russian bass, Alex Pokryshevsky surged authoritatively with gusto in deep earthy territory to impress. 

A beautiful harp solo greets a small chorus in the first scene and these ‘invisible voices’ responded with a riding rhythmical kick, later launching into the final majestic musical setting with combined firmness. 

There’s a treat in stall for Sunday and praise to CitiOpera for preparing this richly jewelled rarity for Melbourne audiences.

Kashchey the Immortal
Penultimate rehearsal:
Victorian College of the Arts
16th March, 2018

Scheduled public performance:
Melbourne Recital Hall
Sunday, 18th March, 2018

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A pleasure to behold but Florencia in el Amazonas jackknifes into murky territory at San Diego Opera

Principal cast singers of San Diego Opera's Florencia in el Amazonas
Nature’s ability to overwhelm us with its beauty, tempt us to explore it and wreak unexpected havoc when least we desire it is a prevailing force in the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia in el Amazonas. Potently, the journey through it can facilitate the self-discovery of truths, fears and hopes as well as bring out a myriad of emotions in transformative ways.

As the first Spanish language opera commissioned by a U.S. opera company, premiering at Houston Grand Opera in 1996, Florencia in el Amazonas has gone on to receive numerous revivals around the country. It’s a mysterious and atmospheric work that requires compelling stagecraft for the theatre. It’s also equally challenging for its variegated libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain - inspired by the style of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s magic realism - but sometimes it feels hard to find its dramatic beat. San Diego Opera’s new lush and moody staging, created by The Indiana University Opera and Ballet Theatre and directed by Candace Evans, goes far in keeping the work steaming along but, taking myself to Saturday evening’s opening night performance, something wasn’t sticking.

In its fictional story set in the early 1900s, there’s much excitement over La Scala-conquering opera singer Florencia Grimaldi’s homecoming and recital in the isolated Amazonian town of Manaus. Boarding the little steamer El Dorado, travelling incognito and having felt the loneliness of fame, Florencia’s real reason, however, is to find the love she left behind in a man, a butterfly hunter, who went in search of a rare butterfly.

Elaine Alvarez as Florencia Grimaldi
The opera’s title belongs to Florencia but it’s not entirely her show. Sharing the journey as she ponders a love given up, Rosalba, the journalist desperate to interview the diva she doesn’t recognise, is discovering it in the deckhand Arcadio and, wearing thin in love in their long years together, married couple Alvaro and Paula are trading barbs. When the El Dorado runs aground, the drama jackknifes, the magical realm of the Amazon gushes forth and revelations are made.

Evans’ director’s notes in the program on nature’s power to affect personal discovery point to such comparisons as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Into the Woods and The Tempest. With the Captain and man of mystery, Riolobo, making up its seven principal characters, we might even add the light-hearted 70s comedy series Gilligan’s Island in...”a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship”. I’ll put that image aside for now and make mention of designer Mark Frederic Smith’s scenic masterpiece: a handsomely crafted weather-beaten Minnow-sized twin-decked steamer that shifts on a revolve and that Evans utilises for all sorts of clever purposes. Linda Pisano’s costumes capture period and place beautifully assisted by Todd Hensley’s impressive lighting that colour the shift of day.

María Fernanda Castillo as Rosalba and Daniel Montenegro as Arcadio
Musically, Catán addresses the contrasts found in the story and balances them pleasingly. Catán’s evocative and stylistically meandering music is easily accessible, threading both late 19th century Romantic and Impressionist influences, of Latin rhythm with a notable lustrous dose of Puccini’s signature found in his ‘verismo’ operas. Shaping it in the pit, conductor Joseph Mechavich delved deep for its riches and brought together its multifaceted parts in an extended wash of unified sound with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s expertise on show.

Looking perfect in the role as Florencia, soprano Elaine Alvarez draws a woman of great sensitivity and enigma, the voice ripe and full of thrust. As part of the role, there are two sizeable arias to surmount but the prominent high tessitura seemed to result in a tightening of the voice. And while Florencia is the central focus for the journey, the role feels half-baked, especially given that she floats about having little interaction with others on board. On the other hand, the relationship that blooms between Rosalba and Arcadio steals the journey - shimmering soprano María Fernanda Castillo and warm tenor Daniel Montenegro form a compelling union in a convincing performance that showcases their broad stage talents.

Luis Alejandro Orozco as Riolobo and chorus of Amazon creatures
Guiding the El Dorado with gentle authority is smooth baritone Hector Vásquez as the Capitán, owning his smaller role assuredly and striking poignancy in his duet with Montenegro as his nephew the deckhand. Rich and sleek mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala ignites proceedings entertainingly with her bitter tongue as Paula alongside a more subdued husband played by characterful baritone Levi Hernandez, their rear-deck supper scene bringing a sense of lightness and bite to the table. And baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, as Riolobo, displays both muscularity in voice and physique as the mysterious force that lives in both realms and is the summoner of the Amazonian magical world of creatures.

The agile leotard-costumed dancers who create waves of movement against the boat are impressive but a few more would have really driven the effect. Not so the chorus of creatures who generally disappoint and distract as they clumsily parade across the stage as if on their way to some other function. By the time Florencia experiences some kind of transfiguration at opera’s end, it passed in an anti-climactic and confusing rush. Still, there is a great pleasure to behold in the work and Evans gets much of it done vibrantly.

Florencia in el Amazonas 
San Diego Opera
Until 25th March, 2018

Production Photos:  J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

Monday, March 19, 2018

Love, death and remembrance: John Neumeier's conceptually powerful and touching Orpheus and Eurydice at LA Opera

Maxim Mironov as Orpheo, Act 1, Orpheus and Eurydice
Had Christoph Willibald Gluck not revised his original Italian version of Orfeo ed Euridice for its Vienna premiere in 1762 for its French version twelve years later to suit Parisian tastes, as Orphée et Eurydice, there would be little need for opera companies to collaborate so closely as they do, and so impressively as they have done as LA Opera have with acclaimed Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet’s current production on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Sung marvellously in French under its English title Orpheus and Eurydice, the result is a melt-your-senses joy as part of a new co-production of LA Opera with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Staatsoper Hamburg.

In the French version, on top of its straightforward story requiring just three soloists and chorus, Gluck’s gloriously elegant and emotive music is given generous breathing space that ballet can freely take advantage of. That’s exactly what director, choreographer and all-encompassing designer John Neumeier has done, Hamburg Ballet's esteemed director and choreographer since 1973. Neumeier does so inventively and wields his influence confidently, imbuing the work with moving and mesmerising theatrical form to elucidate the complexities of love, the grief and eventual acceptance of death and - in a stroke of genius by altering Gluck’s happier ending - how life is honoured after. Admittedly, turning Gluck’s happier ending upside down could not have worked better considering its contemporary based concept that references an industry Neumeier knows the ins and outs of.

Lisette Oropesa and Maxim Mironov
The enchanting musician and poet Orpheus, choreographer in this case, mourns the death of his wife Eurydice and, with Amour’s invitation, passes into the Underworld to bring her back. There are conditions. Orpheus is not to look at her until they are back on earth. With Orpheus’s trial, Eurydice’s anguish over his indifference and taste of Elysium’s calmness, a breakdown of resolve and a fateful glance back that commits Eurydice there forever, Neumeier puts exciting spin on the story and wastes no time in establishing the background that defines it. Most importantly, his Underworld makes perfect sense as a darkened psychological state in which the subconscious deals with grief.

In the few minutes during which the overture is played, we meet Orpheus, at work in rehearsal with his dancers. His wife, also a dancer, is late. Not in any mood to take chastisement, an argument ensues, she slaps his face and storms back out. At overture’s end, a pause. The screech of tyres. A car appears and Eurydice rolls out dead. And then, the phone call. The repercussions of Neumeier’s opening burst unfold in scene after scene of poignant drama incorporating spellbinding dance. From the pliable warm ups and practice in the rehearsal room to the aggressiveness of the Furies, the grace of the Blessed Spirit Couples of Elysium and back in reality in full costume for the rehearsed ballet, the agility and beauty on display from more than 40 dancers not only excitingly move the action forward but provide meditative comfort.

At the core, however, is Russian tenor Maxim Mironov’s utterly touching performance as Orpheus. Mironov’s superb consoling warmth of tone alone almost seems just about powerful enough to relinquish Orpheus from his own sorrow. Mironov's sensitive use of text, delivered with the most mellow vibrato and perfectly placed resonance, is a stealer of attentions. Only due to the amount of danced drama on orchestral linkage does Mironov get respite from the vocal load Orpheus carries. His interpretation, in smart casual fitting attire with scarf that becomes his neck’s spurned friend, is tireless, sympathetic and commanding, all the way to the opera’s Act 3 mournful and most famous aria, J’ai perdu mon Eurydice" ("I have lost my Euridice"). In it, Orpheus  sings of the pain that becomes too much, having lost Eurydice a second time, and resorts to take his life. In a role that has bounced from castrato to haute-contre, mezzo-soprano and even baritone, Mironov has signed the role wonderfully with admirable masculine modernity.

Maxim Mironov and dancers from the Joffrey Ballet
His Eurydice is appropriately feisty, questioning and a convincing match in the competent embrace of soprano Lisette Oropesa. The pearlescent finesse and expressive intent of Eurydice’s thoughts and words drawn in voice, to both find comfort in and counter Orpheus’s presence, become a vital and compelling force, highlighted in duet with Mironov with marvellously complimentary singing and acting. And depicting Love with no airs and graces in tomboyish style, young soprano Liv Redpath gives luscious, melodic and firm support as Amour.

Down in a slightly raised pit, conductor James Conlon drove an excellently crafted and moderately paced score that oozed with sincerity and braced the stage kindly. Sharing his domain, the LA Opera Chorus do fine work with their sonorous requiem-like music ringing in thrilling tandem with the ballet.

Visually, Neumeier’s inspiration takes its cue from Arnold Böcklin’s 19th century Symbolist painting, “Isle of the Dead” (“Die Toteninsel“), a work that has been interpreted as a depiction of the painting’s oarsman as representing the boatman Charon who transported souls to the Underworld in Greek mythology. With it, a wealth of potent theatricality is infused alongside a modernist series of sectional-cubed modules that are manoeuvred in various ways to include and frame the action. The contrasts and blending tuck together and enthral the eye as harmoniously as the sound caresses the ears. In all, its the kind of experience you seem to feel completely at one with your seat.

Orpheus and Eurydice 
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, LA Music Centre
Until 25th March, 2018

Production Photos: Ken Howard

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Magic Pudding returns with its fun and frolicsome adventure fit for all from Victorian Opera

Brenton Spiteri, Nathan Lay, Douglas Kelly and Timothy Reynolds
Neither be alarmed nor feel left out if you haven’t heard of Norman Lindsay’s classic Australian children’s book published 100 years ago, The Magic Pudding: Being The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff. Not everyone in our bush-loving land grew up with Lindsay’s enchanting sing-song verse. But, simply known as The Magic Pudding, maybe we all should.

Lindsay’s crackerjack ability to seduce his reader with an endearing bunch of personality-diverse critters in a tale outlining the tantalising and tricky track of appealing adventure, accompanied by intermittent adverse affairs on the way, of building friendships and extolling the gaiety of song, is as charmingly instructive for kids as it is for adults.

Now, with Victorian Opera’s 70-minute frolicsome and tightened re-creation, The Magic Pudding has a scrumptious new form to endear a new generation. With song and wit so aglow in Lindsay’s little book, it’s almost unimaginable to think it hadn’t been produced with music earlier. After its premiere season opening in 2013, it returns triumphantly, boldly opening the company’s 2018 season putting children firmly at the fore.

Jeremy Kleeman with Albert, The Magic Pudding
Composer Calvin Bowman’s tuneful and accessible, brisk and jolly score provides an invigorating and descriptive musical match for Anna Goldsworthy’s faithfully written adaptation that trims but preserves the integrity of Lindsay’s indelible text. Conductor Fabian Russell and his 11-member Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra brought out the spark marvellously while director Cameron Menzies facilitated the storytelling with plain sailing vitality that ties the work’s four ‘slices’ into a totally captivating whole. Of course, without costume designer Chloe Greaves’s fabulously fabricated and outfitted fauna, her simple but effective set - comprising a painted bush backdrop with woody vertical and horizontal stage elements and a handful of roll-in props - as well as Peter Derby’s ravishing lighting, the theatrical experience would’ve felt lost.

Showing commitment to their cause, a cast of both current and former Victorian Opera Youth Artists sang and acted through the adventure, headed by a warm, robust and resonant Nathan Lay who brought to life the most distinguished koala this side of Toolaroo and one with clout, Bunyip Bluegum.

Jeremy Kleeman’s physical manifestations are as much a pleasure to watch as the gangly, basin-headed, chest-less and sour-faced pudding puppet he manipulates while strapped to his shoes, the voice, rum-rich and, quaintly, conversely chesty. His Albert the Pudding is hot property indeed, impish and hard not to sympathise with. “Cut-an'-come-again is his name”, his oft steak-and-kidney inners replenishing themselves as quickly as the they’re met with a fork.

Pudding owners, sailor Bill Barnacle and penguin Sam Sawnoff were an excellent comic duo in the hands of Timothy Reynolds and Brenton Spiteri, their cheesy grooves getting lots of laughs and their wavering fists getting a good workout protecting their pudding. Puddin’ Thieves Shakira Tsindos as Possum and Shakira Dugan as Wombat, were a perfect borderline bumbling pair in their conniving pursuits. Dugan’s additional neck-twitching Rooster and cackling pizzicato song, as brief as it was, won’t be easily forgotten.

Shakira Tsindos and Shakira Dugan
As the shimmying, gavel-wielding Judge, Carlos E. Bárcenas showed off a new comic side to go with the ever-striking large and lavish tenor he produces. Expressive baritone Stephen Marsh is one to watch for the future, making a fine pedigree of floppy eared canine, Benjimen Brandysnap, Douglas Kelly did a notably strong job as both Constable and Hedgehog and, mostly singing from atop, a feathered young Georgia Wilkinson narrated with light, starry-voiced care.

The incorporation of a youth and adult chorus is a particularly fine idea. While they do little more than occasionally parrot the text, they added so much to the slice of enjoyment with their clear sense of community and combined vocal unity. Clustered on each side of the stage, in flannel and checks, they often had the appearance of being part of the natural landscape. Only issue? With around 50 in number, they reduced the stage area considerably, leaving the main action in a mostly restricted centralised area.

The bulk of Victorian Opera supporters have to wait until July for the meatier fare when William Tell opens at the Palais Theatre. In the meantime, The Magic Pudding can leave a smile planted on your face before it travels to Wodonga and Bendigo. And if you haven't already, read Lindsay's book. Children get another slice of the season with an abridged version of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in June.

The Magic Pudding 
Victorian Opera
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 17th March

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Putting the Shakespeare back in, Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict gets an exciting new look at Seattle Opera

Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict, Seattle Opera, directed by John Langs
It passed as a somewhat extended and bubbly entertainment in an eye-catching staging beating with energy on a structurally tight and reimagined Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz’s final opera based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. With it, Seattle Opera have quite a work to be proud of in this exciting hybrid opera-play directed by John Langs and incorporating an assured cast to prove it.

Langs has put the Shakespeare back into the comedy and replaced Berlioz’s French libretto with, as well as inserting a little more of, the Bard’s witty all English text to create a neatly padded new look, acute accents erased. There’s also some added music in the mix from La damnation de Faust, Benvenuto Cellini and L’enfance du Christ, all Berlioz and all very smoothly spliced with lyrics adapted by Jonathan Dean. In all, its pacy two acts cames in at a little over two and a half hours, including interval and it packs a punch with its stand-off of love and trickery to fuse it.

The refined and sumptuous sounding Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s superbly played bobbing and darting overture set the foundations for a musical journey that conductor Ludovic Morlot guided with spirited command. The strings hummed in beautiful textures and the humble piccolo got to frolic high and proudly above the soundscape in this penultimate and secure run.

Andrew Owens as Benedict and Hanna Hipp as Beatrice
When the curtain went up, Matthew Smucker’s lofty multi-level set - a crazy network of stairs, landings, overhangs and square-columned supports - looked breathtaking under Connie Yun’s bold lighting that would continue to vividly and dramatically tint the singular setting. The audience agreed in a burst of applause. Then, charging down the aisle, an officer of the Sicilian army screams out “Leonato!” as the townsfolk of Messina, dressed in Deborah Trout’s dazzling costumes, are interrupted in their day’s activities as local soldiers return from duty in a festive celebration. Thus begins the confidence and vigour characterising Langs’ mobilisation of his cast. And what followed were details aplenty and a comic life without overload from a gifted team of principals.

Both the inflammatory and irresistible chemistry between young Beatrice and the Sicilian officer Benedict was aglow in the well-acted and strongly sung pair, Hanna Hipp and Andrew Owens (who alternated with Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader). Their opening duet didn’t quite coalesce into a magic union - neither were their sentiments, of course, at this stage - but from hereon, Hipp’s gleamingly topped luscious soprano and Owens’ warm ringing tenor made an impressionable mark both individually and together. Not that the duet that comes with the finale, “This love is like a flame”, is as attractive for voice as its music is for orchestra which you hear so buoyantly in the overture. You rather expect something more bombastic.

Shelly Traverse, Craig Verm, Daniel Sumegi and Marvin Grays
Craig Verm gets a good chance to flex his impressively etched and muscular baritone and strut a dashing aide-de-camp as Benedict’s friend Claudio, notably getting Act 2 off on a furious and vengeful start in “Woe to those who dare to love!” Stepping up to take on the role of Hero after Laura Tatulescu’s indisposition, Shelly Traverse easily won over her audience with her delightfully sweet and breezy soprano and effortlessly defined characterisation to become a deserved champion of the stage. Marvin Grays cut a dapper Leonato, Beatrice’s niece and Governor of Messina, and Daniel Sumegi’s gravelly-rich and swarthy bass resonated large in playing Don Pedro as a smarmy, self-important Sicilian general.

Giving Maestro Morlot coercive tips in musical direction, and in his element, Kevin Burdette’s wild comic antics and impressively steered robust baritone came together marvellously as the music master Somarone. The scheming, darker characters of the plot that pop up here and there were an unseemly duo rendered by Brandon O’Neill’s dastardly Don Juan and Avery Clark’s chipper Borachio. Rich and gracefully sounding contralto Avery Amereau also gives impact in the smaller role as Hero’s lady-in-waiting, Ursule alongside Christine Marie Brown’s Margaret, Chip Sherman's Messenger/Friar  and the Seattle Opera Chorus filling the town and the auditorium with wonderful singing life. Miked dialogue was warmly delivered and balanced comfortably with unamplified singing.

As an inventive part of the Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare Festival, Berlioz sits front seat with the Bard in this fresh and lively work. It's over for now but expect it to pop up again.

Beatrice and Benedict 
Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall
Until 10th March, 2018

Production Photos: Jacob Lucas

Monday, March 5, 2018

On an musical underlay of brash modernity, Brett Dean's stirring Hamlet receives its Australian premiere at Adelaide Festival

Hamlet, Australian composer Brett Dean’s stirring new work commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera - currently in its Australian premiere season at Adelaide Festival - liberally explores the psychological aspect of Shakespeare’s young Danish prince. Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains the immortal line penned a little over 400 years ago, “To be, or not to be”, so widely quoted and debated that, in those few shortest of words, we can expect to go round and round in circles for a long time to come deliberating over its meaning.

Act One, Scene One of Brett Dean's Hamlet, Adelaide Festival
Further broadening interpretations, the written word is able to wear multiple meanings when spoken. Perhaps they refer to the tussle between thought and action? Swiftly and concisely stated yes, but that’s the way it strikes me, these unadorned words that reflect the everyday ordinary conundrums humankind faces. Thus it is so for Shakespeare’s eponymous Hamlet, extraordinarily so, as he learns the ‘truth’ behind his father’s death from dead Old Hamlet himself, dramatically altering his psychological course and subsequent actions.

Dean’s Hamlet certainly has the potential to cement itself into the modern repertoire. It’s an unconventional piece, both musically and narratively, beginning with the famous soliloquy and it’s famous line chopped in half as “Or not to be” in a soundscape equally striking as it is unsettling. It’s a music-drama of sorts whose success will largely depend on a highly committed cast as skilled at acting as they are at operatic singing. It also requires the service of intellectual direction at the helm and a production concept that matches the score's brash melody-deficient modernity. Altogether, it points to a work that, like its germination, rests on taut collaboration.

That’s exactly what was witnessed at its Australian premiere on Friday night, an achievement in which powerfully nuanced performances are part and parcel of a production its entire creative team have fused marvellously to the text.

Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Shakespeare’s text it is, but condensed and rearranged from its three extant versions by Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn. It matters not that the reduced number of characters are often assigned lines belonging to another. What matters is that Jocelyn’s painstaking effort has resulted in a mostly lean, smooth and fluid two-act format that could easily be thought of as taking its cue from Hamlet’s own messed up, fractured circumstances.

Australian director Neil Armfield has built on it an insightful and compelling theatrical layer, one in which the surface formality and decorum of Elsinore breaks apart, light and dark are in flux and touches of humour counterbalance the unfolding tragedy. Opening with its delicately fenestrated neo-classical hall filled with familiar mid-20th century glamour and progressing through a series of fragmented revolves, deconstructions and spatial transformations, Australian theatre makers Ralph Myers’ sets and Alice Babidge’s costumes lend captivating support and a sense of immediacy. Adding revival lighting designer David Manion’s richly evocative moods that meet dramatic context head-on, it’s hard to imagine the whole mise en scène being more suitably realised.

Within these spaces, British tenor Allan Clayton leads a first-rate cast as young Hamlet (a good few of them, including Clayton, did the honours in Glyndebourne), brilliantly acting and singing his way through the Herculean demands of the title role. Without suggesting Hamlet is either mad of feigning to be, Clayton portrays a hyperactive misfit from the start, shabby in appearance and seemingly unintentionally irreverent of social norms. Clayton effectively balances vulnerability, reason and forthrightness on Hamlet’s vengeful path with an alluring, expressive and dynamic vocal outfit on a man you can’t but feel sympathy for.

Lorina Gore as Ophelia and Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Privileged son and daughter of power and - a not so far flung thought being entertained - incest, Clayton’s Hamlet also makes a perfectly plausible match for potent soprano Lorina Gore’s sensitively portrayed Ophelia. Gore’s nail-biting anxious and fidgety Ophelia helps to reinforce the grief Orphelia experiences after Hamlet declares, “I did love you once” before snowballing into the later tragic mad scene in which Gore writhes and suffers in mesmerising part sing-speak and heart wrenching operatic tradition - a performance highlight.

American Rod Gilfry’s suave, elastic and smouldering baritone befits a handsome but distrustful Claudius. Soprano Cheryl Barker is excellent as his new wife Gertrude, see-sawing between mother and wife, glorious in voice at the top with devastating darkness below. Robust British tenor Kim Begley suits up in a distinguished performance as the coercive and lordly Polonius and cool authority accompanies the mature and muscled tenor of Samuel Sakker’s imposing and sword-skilled Laertes, his son.

More or less joined at the hip and eventually by their shoelaces, the perfectly timed irradiant countertenors Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey added comic lightness as pawns in the King’s circle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Jud Arthur digs deep into cavernous bass territory in a thrilling scene full of tension and shadows as a shirtless and brawny Ghost of Old Hamlet. Arthur follows up as Player 1, then literally pops up again as the matter-of-fact Gravedigger. And stalwart Australian baritone Douglas McNicol captures his loyalty for and gentle acceptance of his prince most sincerely as an older Horatio. Andrew Moran (Marcellus/Player 4), Beau Sandford (Player 2) and Norbert Hohl (Player 3) round out and compliment the quality cast with accordionist James Crabb squeezing out a good sound on stage during the play-within-a-play.

Rod Gilfry, Cheryl Barker, Christopher Lowrey and Rupert Enticknap
Under the exceptional command of conductor Nicholas Carter, the sonic diversity and depth of Dean’s score (as well as electronic sounds) were exposed with clarity to reveal its often frenzied, eerie and ominous elements, surely not a doddle for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra but the playing was secure. Also in force of numbers and positioned in multiple locations of the theatre, the State Opera Chorus and members of The Song Company’s refined singing added ethereal touches and atmospheric weight.

What Dean and his team have done with Hamlet is create a work that not only has a strong underlying pulse, but one that could easily be appreciated by those unfamiliar with opera. Act One is long but not uncomfortably so despite the likelihood of momentary lapses of concentration. Together with the shorter second act, the work is almost three hours long. Strangely, when it was all over, I imagined it being performed without interval. And then I felt confident I’d enjoy being enraptured by each segueing scene as Hamlet’s verse sang out its turbulent story.

A Glyndebourne Festival Opera Production
Adelaide Festival
Festival Theatre
Until 6th March, 2018

Production Photos: Tony Lewis 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

An emphatically sung Turandot wrapped in a wild cocktail of colour makes a splash at San Diego Opera

Drunk on a wild cocktail of colour and extravagant visual detail, San Diego Opera’s new production of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, directed by Keturah Stickann, appropriately eschews aggrandisement and sets about telling its story for what it is - a dark fantastical tale with a part measure of frivolity.

Act One scene from San Diego Opera's Turandot
For this purpose, the creative designers contribute enormously in realising its exotic and mystical ancient Chinese world. Allen Charles Klein’s set design incorporates a large contorted dragon on which a pearl descends and Princess Turandot’s magnified eye magically spies from. A series of slanting steps appear lotus leaf-like, not an easy incline to navigate across, perhaps suggesting keeping the masses restricted in their movements. Willa Kim’s costumes are a riot of freely interpreted Chinese influences with a Cirque du Soleil vibrancy. And Lucas Krech’s punchy lighting begins in cool hues and eventually turns on a blazing spectrum of colour as the princess’s ice-heartedness melts away and the dragon within is tamed. 

Around 100 performers make up the mix on stage and Stickann musters and directs them with ardour, outdone only by a troupe of acrobatics who, in turn, are outshined by the three muck about imperial ministers Ping, Pang and Pong. And the four major leads - Lise Lindstrom, Carl Tanner, Angel Joy Blue and Brian Kontes - did a wonderful job at meeting the challenges Puccini wrote for their roles. 

Lise Lindstrom as Turandot
The whole forms a potent brew in which Turandot proclaims she is of the heavens and the three ‘P’s sing out to Calàf - the foreign prince who solves three cryptic riddles to win her in marriage - that she doesn’t really exist. Turandot may very well represent simply a symbol of entrapment and dominance, making the lofty monument she is often depicted as quite sensible after all. More softly approached, Stickann’s Turandot floats her imperious self amongst her people early on during the riddle ceremony that takes place well into Act 2 when she makes her first earthly and vocal appearance. It works well in setting up the frisson between the gallant but idiotically besotted Calàf, realised exceptionally by an aggressively passionate and the nobly-voiced tenor of Carl Tanner, and a formidable Turandot in the hands of star soprano Lise Lindstrom. 

Calàf is ascribed the lion’s share of vocal output, including the popularly enjoyed “Nessun dorma”, a reflection on his vow to reveal the secret of his name to Turandot as he awaits dawn, believing she will melt into his passion. As full of rich chiaroscuro and stirringly sung as it was by Tanner, it was a mere fraction of his overall exceptional performance. The impetuous prince in love, an empathetic heart for his father Timur, the deposed King of Tartary, and genuine grief at the loss of the slave girl Liù, Tanner calibrated both voice and acting astutely. And never could he not unleash the volume to sail over the full force of everything surrounding him on stage and in the pit.

Carl Tanner as Calàf 

Apart from slicing the air in terrifying and subtlety increasing force for each of the three riddles, Lindstrom, too, could garner inner might and produce the dizzying highly placed notes in deeply cut-sapphire succession, something she has perfected dozens and dozens of times on many of the world’s esteemed stages. Added to that was an armoury of gestures showing compete immersion in Turandot’s world, including a long and tense frozen stare she casts on Calàf as she shows the first hint of attraction.

Luscious soprano Angel Joy Blue, in her house debut, sang out a rapturous pair of arias as the loyal and in-love Liù in a beautifully nuanced performance. Brian Kontes used his appealingly shaped gravelly bass to great effect as old Timur. Tenors Marco Nisticò and Joseph Gaines infused a little camp lightheartedness to their ministry as Ping and Pang alongside baritone Joel Sorensen as a slightly less flamboyant Pong although, as the disenchanted trio, their Italian diction headed into loutishness and timing often waned.

Marco Nisticò as Ping, Joseph Gaines as Pang and Joel Sorensen as Pong
The massive San Diego Opera Chorus sang emphatically, as most of the evening was, although there were occasions when the sound was overwrought. On the other hand, and they don’t sing for long but, if they kept impressing any longer, the children’s chorus would have easily melted Turandot’s icy heart themselves with their deliciously silken tone. 

Conductor Valerio Galli rather cracked the whip on tempo so bar time, no pun intended, came around quickly. Twice! Nevertheless, the expertly played soundscape portrayed the score’s thrilling textures and eruptions of gusto excellently. In the end, the sum of all the parts came together admirably as Calàf saved himself from beheading, Turandot melted into his arms with a kiss and the contrived exoticism added its own spectacularity. Give it a great sing and that’s about as much as you’d expect from Turandot. Stickann manages to add a smidgen more for your viewing pleasure.

Civic Theatre
San Diego Opera
Until March 4th 2018

Production Photos:  J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson