Sunday, June 10, 2018

A delectable children's treat returns with Victorian Opera's delightful Hansel and Gretel

You know you’re engaging your young audience when they’re both attentive and interactive at a performance. “Why are they cuddling?”, “What kind of spell is it?”, the boy behind me uttered with inquisitiveness. Gleefully interruptive and unfiltered, but endearingly so, children were entertained with the art of opera boiled down to their level in a revival of Victorian Opera’s delectable 2014 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera, Hansel and Gretel.

Cleo Lee-McGowan as Gretel and Shakira Dugan as Hansel
Elizabeth Hill’s lively direction melded excitingly on an easy to follow 50-minute condensed version of Humperdinck’s score more than double that length. Generating the drama, Humperdinck’s beautiful tapestry of effervescent melodies, musical landscapes and darker interjections that characterise the work were delightfully realised by conductor Simon Bruckard in leading a 14-strong contingent of musicians making up the Victorian Opera Chamber Ensemble in the Playhouse Theatre pit. Not a note appeared to drift off course and the warmth and care of playing provided thoughtful support for the stage.

Roller-mounted partitions painted with an interior picture-book representation of Hansel and Gretel’s house, the nearby woods and inside the witch’s gingerbread house looked a treat in Ross Hall’s context-effective designs with beautifully detailed folksy Germanic costumes completing the fairy-tale aesthetic. Peter Darby’s backdrop of mood-varying pin lighting and shadowy effects were especially evocative. A small quibble but just one thing I craved for, colourfully candied as the witch’s cottage was, were bigger helpings of them in the form of a more enticing gingerbread cottage than the flat wall it was. Still, the witch’s candy-camouflaging cloak added a clever sense of trepidation when Hansel and Gretel happen upon the cottage.

It wouldn’t have mattered if it was sung in English or Swahili as the young cast of eight familiar developing artists on the local opera scene brought Adelheid Wette’s German libretto to sparkling life with aplomb. And with a family of four all enjoying an opportunity to dance, and competently too, the little household captivated.

Kirilie Blythman as Mother and Stephen Marsh as Father
Deliciously creamy mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan was perfect as a scallywag of a Hansel, impressing with her top notes and toasty vibrato. Lithe and full of expression, sweet and pure soprano Cleo Lee-McGowan sparkled as a sensible blonde pigtailed Gretel. Together, Dugan and Lee-McGowan offset sibling contrasts adorably along their rocky adventure, coming together for their divinely sung evening prayers and in a lovely balanced duet highlight as they celebrate their victory over the Witch. 

Lush-voiced Kirilie Blythman effortlessly took to the initially cranky but loving Mother and as an amiable Father, Stephen Marsh’s mellow and firmly buttressed baritone came with usual polish. The evil act of baking children into gingerbread was carried out by a Weimar cabaret-inspired Witch who Tomas Dalton rendered with largesse.

Smaller roles were filled pleasingly by Douglas Kelly as a rustic Sandman, Michelle McCarthy as a striking Dew Fairy with Matthew Thomas who, as all but the titular leads of the cast did singing dual roles for children and angels, sang robustly as an Angel and Child. Despite the sound voices, what felt missing was a real chorus of children who would certainly have convinced the young critics in the audience. Nevertheless, Victorian Opera do a remarkable job in stimulating the creative heart of and educating children in the art of opera. 

Two children’ operas have already now been presented this 2018 season - a wonderful revival of The Magic Pudding having opened the season. Adult entertainment is only now in rehearsal for the bigger fare when Rossini’s William Tell takes the Palais Theatre stage in July. That’s what Melbourne’s avid opera goers are patiently waiting for.

Hansel and Gretel
Victorian Opera
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 12th June

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A little uneven musically but thoughtful direction makes Aida worthy gold in Singapore

Despite having a lively arts scene, opera is an infrequent experience in Singapore, a city geographically distant from Europe or North America where enviable density exists more than a 10-hour flight away. Championing the art form locally for over 25 years, however, Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) have brought opera’s most popular works to the stage and, since 2008, have made the modern 1950-seat Esplanade Theatre its performance home. In recent years, just one fully staged work is presented annually for which an international team of artists and creatives are regularly engaged. For 2018, it was Giuseppe Verdi's iconic 1871 opera, Aida.

Scene from Act II of Singapore Lyric Opera's Aida
The storytelling bode well when the curtain went up during the brief orchestral prelude in Australian director and current Resident Director of the Royal Opera Andrew Sinclair’s new production. Diving straight into the plot’s emotional heart, Sinclair added a thoughtful touch when Aida (Singaporean soprano Nancy Yuen) appeared left of stage just before the King’s guards marched from the right with Radamès (Norwegian tenor Thomas Ruud) following. Aida and Radamès sneak a brief embrace that allowed a glimpse of the secret love between the captured Ethiopian princess and the Egyptian soldier who would lead his country to battle. 

Thereon, Sinclair showed a knack for supplying effective narrative padding over the opera’s 4 acts that imbued the work with a sense of depth in the overall drama. Only when Aida and her father Amonasro (local baritone Martin Ng) flee the guards in Act 3 as a disgraced Radamès gives himself up did the clumsy execution tarnish the otherwise seductive drama. Still, it finished well with Amonasro’s onstage death by sword and gave further evidence of Sinclair’s deftly resolved interpretation that enhances the text marvellously - just as well because the English and Chinese translation didn’t always keep up with things. 

Sinclair also mobilised the large cast superbly, giving multi-dimensional weight to an enthusiastic and tuneful chorus and utilising the stage effectively. And it all looked stunning with its simplistic realisation of the story’s ancient Egyptian setting. Justin Hill's sets compromised little more than a painted flat - a sturdy-columned drop that demarcated interior and exterior spaces - on a split-level stage on which foreground and background action effectively and often simultaneously unfolded. Simple but appealing too in its stagecraft was Amneris’ arrival by boat at the Temple of Isis and the final scene of airless entombment under a thick-ribbed apex. The visual effect could not have succeeded without Adrian Tan's lighting that captured day’s beginning and end evocatively as well as Moe Kasim’s exquisite, vibrant-hued costumes.

Thomas Ruud as Radamès and Grace Eschauri as Amneris
It wasn’t entirely rosy on the musical front but Mexican mezzo-soprano Grace Echauri's Amneris was something special. In possession of a deliciously plush and versatile instrument, Echauri addressed the text assuredly and turned Amneris easily into an approachable woman ready to confide in friendship, express her love for Radamès genuinely and impulsively resort to vengeance when the heart was spurned.

In a sensitive portrayed of a youthful Aida that included a measure of poise and trepidation, Yuen emanated an inner glow and sang with appealing colour. Though warming up in not so formidable style in her musical liaisons early on, Yuen - especially luxurious of voice in the mid to lower range - showed off her depth and capability that set her in convincing territory with her first big aria, Act I’s “Ritorna vincitor” (“Return a conqueror"). But for an occasional sharpness at the top of the voice, Yuan went on to elicit sympathy in her predicament of capture and manipulation and contribute marvellously to the love triangle’s realism.

Ruud’s Radamès well out-shaped Yuen’s petite figure to give him the stereotypical burliness and strength of a commander and the large, muscular voice to match. A master of exciting recitative, love’s tenderness was for Ruud a little harder to express with warmth in his opening Act I aria, “Celeste Aida” (“Heavenly Aida") - there was a tendency to overexert - but that was corrected as the plot became thornier. Then, in the final scene, Ruud melted the voice without loss of muscle and complimented Aida in the dying moments superbly. 

Nancy Yuen as Aida and Thomas Ruud as Radamès
Local singer Ng was excellent as a courageous Amonasro, sporting a voice burnished with determination and a performance acted with vigour. Amongst the cast of other local singers in smaller roles, smooth bass Alvin Tan stood out as the dignified Ramfis the High Priest, Cherie Tse’s silken beauty wafted divinely as the High Priestess and, though singing just the morsel of music assigned to the Messenger, Jonathan Tay made it notably impressive. 

Disappointing, but the expectation that authority shows its mettle in vocal prowess fell flat in Steven Ang’s somewhat ailing Pharoah. Under his frail rule, however, the SLO Choir were well-prepared in both richly harmonised voice and purposeful acting as the chorus of priests, priestesses, soldiers, slaves and prisoners. Altogether, they combined gloriously in the opera’s big moment, Act II’s majestically realised Triumphal March alongside choreographer Gani Karim’s athletic dancers who remarkably made themselves integral to the picture. Orchestral forces occasionally lacked  expanse in the strings and the tempi headed on the slower side but the singers were always well-supported under Thai conductor Somtow Sucharitkul. 

Verdi’s Aida has travelled far and wide with ongoing popularity since 1871. This year alone, I’ve seen it prove its worth in Dubai, Seattle and now Singapore with a new Opera Australia program opening in Sydney to come in July and, with smart direction such as seen here, I’m finding more and more in it that pleases. 

Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Theatre, Singapore
Until 6th June, 2018

Production Photos: courtesy of Singapore Lyric Opera