Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The 4th Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations
- 2018 -

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 OperaChaser Awards, Melbourne 

From 26 productions

Outstanding Production
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

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

Outstanding Director
Tama Matheson
Metamorphosis, Opera Australia

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

Outstanding Conductor 
Pietari Inkinen
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outstanding Ensemble
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Opera Australia

Outstanding Ensemble - Independent
Der Rosenkavalier, Melbourne Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 OperaChaser Commendations, Australia

From 5 productions seen in Adelaide, Perth and Sydney

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

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

Outstanding Conductor
Erin Helyard
Artaserse, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

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

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

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

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

Outstanding Ensemble
Artaserse, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Set Design
Dan Potra
La bohème, Opera Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outstanding Conductor
Christian Thielemann
LohengrinBayreuth Festival 2018, Bayreuth

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

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

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

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

Outstanding Ensemble
Roberto Devereux, SF Opera, San Francisco

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

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

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

Once again, thank you to all!

^ links to reviews not penned by myself

Saturday, December 22, 2018

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

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

Favourite moments in 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to in 2019

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

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

Monday, December 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opera San José
California Theatre
Until 2nd December, 2018

Production Photos: Pat Kirk

Saturday, December 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Corey Weaver