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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

An emotional wave of love and loss in Opera Australia's Weimar-era La bohème in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, 9th November, 2018.

It’s only two years since director Gale Edwards’ original 2011 Weimar-era La bohème was seen in Melbourne. In its latest revival under Hugh Halliday’s polished direction, Opera Australia’s lavish investment in Puccini’s popular classic looks set to enamour new audiences again.

The cast of Opera Australia's La bohème, Act 2
Niggling issues remain in transferring Puccini’s story from 1890s Paris to 1930s Berlin but fade behind sympathetically drawn characters and imbedded contrasts. Complicated love and tragic loss, little pleasures and hedonistic excess, with hope versus despair, are juxtaposed skilfully. 

What matters most is the emotional wave that pours through the work. A cast of local and international leads propelled it marvellously on opening night. The chemistry burned affectingly between Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska’s dreamy but determined Mimì and Korean-born tenor Yosep Kang’s emotively pumped Rodolfo. 

Mimì’s final deathbed scene was all the more moving because you saw it coming from the start. Kovalevska portrayed Mimì’s last months convincingly, from the moment love blossoms and through its turns as death slowly approaches. Kovalevska’s creamy tone and alluring top notes blended in a superbly nuanced vocal interpretation.

Kang’s fearless and muscular tenor was pushed at the top but the voice reached perfected expression in the final act. I’m certain as many tears were shed for Kang’s heartbroken Rodolfo as for Mimì’s frozen smile in death.

Yosep Kang and Maija Kovalevska
Christopher Tonkin cruised early on in suave voice as Marcello and Jane Ede was as dazzling in voice as the silvery dress she cavorted in as a siren-seductive Musetta. Bohemian funsters Richard Anderson’s gentle-giant Colline and Christopher Hillier’s camp Schaunard were splendidly complete.

Designer Brian Thomson’s multipurpose and voluminous, polygonal turret intimately held Act’s 1’s shenanigans between friends and accidental meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo. Transformed into a bordello-cum-cabaret hall in Act 2, it’s an eye-popping display of exhibitionism and decadence. It seems everyone traipses through, oddly allowing entry to a clarion ragamuffin children’s chorus and drumming marching girls. Still, Julie Lynch’s costumes capture society’s breadth spectacularly. 

Conductor Pietro Rizzo’s vividly textured reading highlighted Orchestra Victoria’s stellar musicianship. Finished with a red-hot chorus, in its Weimar guise, La bohème still captures the timelessness of a classic.

La bohème 
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 24th November, 2018


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Monday, November 5, 2018

Lorelei struts its style in a pertinent and devastatingly entertaining world premiere by Victorian Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in in edited form in Melbourne's Herald Sun, 6th November, 2108.

No stone seems left unturned in Lorelei, a lush new work from Victorian Opera that explores righting wrongs and rewriting roles women were born to play. Conceived by soprano Ali McGregor, female artists and creatives feature prominently in its inventive look at the mythical siren Lorelei, who lured sailors to their death on the Rhine by her beauty.

Dimity Shepherd, Antoinette Halloran and Ali McGregor
Facilitated by director Sarah Giles’ thought-provoking staging, the results are as pertinent as they are devastatingly entertaining. Such is its strength that one might get the sense women never before have commanded so candid a platform - one of 75 coruscating minutes.

Without pussyfooting around, Casey Bennetto and Gillian Cosgriff’s witty and rhyming libretto is modern, audacious and en pointe. Coined an operatic cabaret, it sits comfily on a smorgasbord of musical styles whipped into an expressive and easy listening score by composer Julian Langdon. Conductor Phoebe Briggs did a sterling job on opening night in showing its energy, leading 12 musicians who produced a richness of texture belying their number.

Starting as three statuesque beauties, mezzo Dimity Shepherd and sopranos Antoinette Halloran and McGregor identify themselves as sirens honouring the memory of Lorelei. There’s no escape for the audience who learn they are their next victim. But the plucky trio have a change of heart as they come to realise it is society that shoehorned them into where they are.

Camaraderie is strong, as is the vocal mix between the plush-voiced, highly individualised trio.

Especially compelling is how the power, burden and abuse of their beauty are reflected in costume designer Marg Horwell’s wildly exaggerated haute couture. Movement is restricted in reams of fabric but is increased the more layers they shed as they question their position. And it couldn’t be coincidental that Horwell’s three-roomed linear set has an inkling of window prostitution to it in which each siren is constrained by its dimensions under Paul Jackson’s colourful lighting.

After all the sirens’ perceived progress as women is made, a reality check comes crashing through in a poignant finale. Redressed, but ever so slightly less than originally, it’s a reminder that a woman’s role is still far from rewritten.

Victorian Opera
Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse
Until 10th November, 2018


Production Photos: Pia Johnson 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

First steps into the baroque but a Gluck double bill from Melbourne's BK Opera falls short

Melbourne’s broad-scaled local opera scene has been pleasantly enriched by small amateur company BK Opera since its inception in 2016. For 2018, firebrand young artistic director Kate Millet has kept the little enterprise busy with a season boasting 4 productions, all of which have found an inventive angle on presenting opera. But, on Wednesday night, in a double bill comprising two of the more commonly performed of Gluck’s prodigious output, Millet’s risky first step into distant baroque fell short.

Louise Keast as and Alison Lemoh in
BK Opera's Orphée et Eurydice
First up, was an evocatively conceived Orphée et Eurydice, a work that premiered in 1762 to an Italian libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi and later adapted to a French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline. It looked to be going somewhere but finished thin on polish. A woolly Iphigénie en Tauride followed (a work that premiered 17 years later in 1779 to a libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard), and disappointingly dragged for most of its course. Taking two full-length operas and condensing them into a running time of one hour each wasn’t, it turned out, the wisest choice. 

Apart from Gluck’s name, common to both was little more than a questionable alteration that saw Orphée and Eurydice romantically involved as lesbians and friends Oreste and Pylade in Iphigénie en Tauride very obviously in a deeply affectionate gay relationship, not that the latter didn’t allude to suggestions of homoeroticism by some Greek writers. But, if doing this was to give contemporary relevance to open-minded audiences then why not dress it so? Nevertheless, a lot of work has gone into creating striking costumes for a seemingly ancient-Grecian look for the mythological subject of Orphée et Eurydice and, oddly, Greeks Oreste and Pylade dressed like Scottish highlanders in tartan kilts for Iphigénie en Tauride. 

A plasticised white floor and back wall allowing for minimal projections and titles formed the basic setting. A small rectangular podium was placed in the foreground to give some directorial variety and prominence to pertinent moments. The only other feature was a headless statue of Artemis carried out and placed at the rear at the beginning of Iphigénie en Tauride - referring to Oreste's order by Apollo to retrieve it from Tauris. Scenes were often too harshly lit when more brooding moods would have been expected, especially so in the bobbing dance of the Furies in Orphée et Eurydice when they initially refuse Orphée's entrance to the Underworld. They did, however, look foreboding as they taunted in their long black cloak, hoods and Carnevale masks.

Erin Towns, Finn Gilheany and Jonathon Rumsam in
BK Opera's Iphigénie en Tauride
Both pieces were sung in well-enunciated French but the extensive cuts did their damage to the poetic colouring of characters and their interactions. English titles chipped a little more off by way of neglectful proofreading. Musically, the exciting range from divine translucency to stormy thrust that characterises Gluck’s score rarely made itself apparent in the more weighty solo piano accompaniment by Pam Christie. James Penn’s conducting provided good pacing, if only the singers were more tightly reined. 

In its story of love, separation, grief and eventual acceptance of death, dark chocolatey mezzo-soprano Alison Lemoh and rich soprano Louise Keast carried their parts admirably as a sombre Orphée and pining Eurydice. Their stylised gentle movements added fluidity to the work as lovers, particularly when separated by a long red veil - a thoughtful touch - under the control of the Furies. Rada Tochalna looked the epitome of Amore and sang with a clear and radiant soprano but cast an overly suspicious eye over her domain. Overly strident singing by the small chorus of nymphs, shepherds and Furies tarnished their performance but, in Iphigénie en Tauridethe priestesses of Diana held it together beautifully. 

In what usually is a confrontational story embedded with courage, compassion and hope in the context of familial love and friendship, those elements rarely shone through effortlessly, however, in Iphigénie en Tauride. Not so in the case of fervent baritone Finn Gilheany, the standout of the night as an impressively gallant Oreste with his strongly shaped vocals and deeply entrenched characterisation. Marginal intensification of vocal colour would have lifted shadowy mezzo-soprano Erin Towns’ commanding Iphigénie as she maintained lovely composure. Andrew Alesi administered stiff authority as Thoas, King of Scythia, and Jonathon Rumsam’s vulnerability in the top of his voice hampered his subordinate Pylades. 

This time, it looked like BK Opera took on a task too great when it might have paid off better by concentrating on just one Gluck. Still, their small audience should be excited about another season ahead next year. 

Orphée et Eurydice / Iphigénie en Tauride
BK Opera
Studio 1, Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre
Until 4th November, 2018

Production Photos: Burke Photography