Sunday, September 15, 2019

Puccini's La bohème flickers its charms under director Barrie Kosky in a snapshot of heartfelt life at Los Angeles Opera

Nearing the close of the 19th century, when the speed of technological and industrial advancement must certainly have felt epoch-making, Puccini’s La bohème premiered at the Teatro Regio in Turin and quickly became popular. The work’s mix of carefree existence - notwithstanding the need for food on the table and heat for the winter  - the exuberance of youth, navigation through love and confrontation with death comes together in a richly woven dramatic and sensory story. All the more, it flickered its charms in Australian director Barrie Kosky’s new production which opened the 2019/20 and 34th season at Los Angeles Opera on Saturday.
Scene from Act II in LA Opera's  La bohème directed byBarrie Kosky

Kosky demonstrates a well-honed concept for his early photographic-inspired production, first unveiled early this year at his artistic home, the Komische Oper Berlin. Kosky keeps his concept alive, interesting and effective, and brings it together with a spread of superb emotional snapshots, setting the story not in 1830s Paris but around the time of its premiere in 1896 when a new century was looming. Nothing would suggest otherwise. And with it, in Kosky’s world, Christmas Eve at Cafe Momus feels as if freedom to be what you want to be and do what you want to do, is everyone’s right for a new century.

But imagine the impact and excitement of being able to pose for and hold onto a photo image of self at the time. An image that could live for eternity. Kosky more or less highlights, through photography’s capture of a moment in time, the story’s origins as a series of vignettes, based on Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème. It’s also used to dictate the imagery of Rufus Didwiszus’ stage design, in which early daguerreotypes of grainy portraits and street scenes provide a backdrop. The bohemians’ loft is a simple platform accessed from a hatch below and a boxed camera on its tripod becomes a brilliantly resolved focus for so much of the action. Alessandro Carletti’s refined lighting design adds further to create a picture of a nostalgic past and Victoria Behr’s costumes are a cornucopia of bustling style and intrigue. 

It’s as if Kosky reminds his modern audience that our Puccini bohemians aren’t so different from our own society’s preoccupation with photographing everything we do and the selfies we snap. He uses stills and forward-facing acted scenes for effect when you might expect more face-to-face contact. But Kosky is always gentle with the work’s heartbeat. Marcello, the artist, has taken to photography and his camera is used with complete natural intent by Rodolfo to capture an image of his newfound love, the tragically framed but spirited Mimì. When Mimì nears her final breaths at the end of Act IV, it doesn’t come as a surprise that her image is captured one last time, a poignant and lasting memory for both Rodolfo and the audience.

Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo and Marina Costa-Jackson as Mimì
On opening night, Kosky’s work fizzed with vitality and emotion, achieved through the outstanding breadth of talent who delivered both powerful and visceral vocals on stage and by the tireless team of musicians in the pit led buoyantly by James Conlon in producing an excellent and expressive-rich sound. 

Utah-born soprano Marina Costa-Jackson notched up a spectacularly memorable house debut as Mimì which no single photo could capture, her vocal modulation, sumptuous textures and audible confidence in all parts of the voice melding with glaringly vivid emotivity. Costa-Jackson’s Mimì is one part coy, two parts impetuous and unlimited in endearing mannerisms, making her impending death one difficult sobbing loss. There’s neither a note nor a moment that Costa-Jackson doesn’t make feel critical to the performance, her soaring large beauty making a phenomenal mark as she shares with Marcello the difficulty she has in dealing with Rodolfo’s jealousy, he having left her the night before, in Act III’s O buon Marcello, aiuto!—"Oh, good Marcello, help me!".

Dynamism and passion tempered with shots of tenderness and sincerity characterise Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu’s muscularly sung Rodolfo. Pirgu’s appealingly driven phrasing and clear diction - something that glistened across just about the whole cast - is unleashed with enormous life. Despite having reservations about his character’s sometimes-seen stunted attitude to love,  the chemistry shared between his Rodolfo and Costa-Jackson’s Mimì, in all its fullness and cracks, is palpable. And the kiss that closes Act III when they agree to stay together until the spring? You feel like jumping with them. 

Michael J. Hawk as Schaunard, Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo,
Kihun Yoon as Marcello and Nicholas Brownlee as Colline
While Rodolfo and his bohemian friends can be a tad unlikeable, they rise beyond all with hearts as big as an elephant’s in one of opera’s most compassionately drawn scenes when Mimì chooses to die amongst them. South Korean Kihun Yoon startles immediately as his smooth and turbocharged baritone brings brawn and stature to his Marcello. The shenanigans are elevated with boyish pranks by warm baritone Michael J. Hawk as Schaunard and impressive bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee. Hawk lost some vocal power alongside his comrades on opening night but his investment in tone and character are strong. Brownlee’s assured vocal bellows are at their prime in Act IV’s Vecchia zimarra—"Old coat", the funereal meter of the aria given a most heart wrenching preparation for death to come. Erica Petrocelli is all glamour and showiness as Marcello’s on-again-off-again lover, her silvery soprano having the flexibility to sing some dashing coloratura but not always sailing the heights of the music around her. The combined men’s, women’s and children’s choruses sound a jubilant treat.

It’s a decidedly rewarding production on many fronts and for those with a stack of old La bohème programs, this one will look great at the top. 

La bohème
Los Angeles Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 6th October, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Monday, September 9, 2019

A stirringly sung, orchestrally watertight and powerfully presented Billy Budd opens at San Francisco Opera

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd doesn’t see the light of day, or the darkness of the theatre to be more specific, as often as it should. It’s been 15 years since San Francisco Opera last staged it. That could be considered recent in comparison to its almost 20 year absence, until this year, from London’s Royal Opera where the opera premiered in 1951. Judging by the rigorous and insightful approach taken in a production new to San Francisco Opera - by way of Glyndebourne Festival where it took in two seasons of audiences in 2010 and 2013 - this Billy Budd from director Michael Grandage shows it to be the masterwork it is and might just be the highlight of the company’s 97th season.

John Chest in the title role and cast of Billy Budd
at San Francisco Opera
Set in the late 1790s during the Napoleonic Wars, Brit-born Billy is young, genial, adventurous and without family. He’s also devilishly handsome and a lowly subordinate which bring about the tragedy to come. He loves his life, is loved for many reasons by his crew and thought highly of by the ship’s captain, Captain Vere, whose strength of command and conscience is tested by the serrated edge of law. For in this shipload of sweaty men eager to sink the French, evil authority picks its target - embodied by the master-at-arms, John Claggart - and sets about to destroy the handsome lad who, by presence alone, appears to threaten him by unhinging suppressed homosexual desire. Accused by Claggart of mutiny, Billy is brought before Vere to defend himself but his stammer gets the better of him and, in a fit of frustration, lashes out at Claggart and knocks him dead.

The great tragedy of Billy Budd is manifold - of innocence preyed upon, of purpose confused or, worse, lost completely, of regretful actions and of blind belief. Most of all, as the turbulence builds towards its inescapable climax, it’s of preposterous injustice. Vere, lit up alone in the dark on stage in the bookended prologue and epilogue tells us so. Based on Herman Melville’s novella of the same name and grittily told through E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier’s libretto, the work’s success is in no small part due to its deeply constructed characters who inspire audience inquiry.

In an extraordinary looking tri-level monumental cross-sectioned hull of a man-o’-war as part of Christopher Oram’s stage design, isolation, containment and the predicaments that arise within its raw and oppressive hold are handled with rewarding tension-building theatrical muscle. Under revival director Ian Rutherford, it’s a production that has it all. It’s stirringly sung, orchestrally watertight and powerfully presented.

Christian Van Horn as Claggart and William Burden as Vere
Britten’s score heaves and swings to and fro with oft-times capriciousness and wide ranging orchestral textures to which conductor Lawrence Renes lent cutting clarity, rhythmic seduction and appealing fluidity on opening night. The orchestra obliged, playing with tremendous sensitivity.

Perfectly driving the drama, amongst his own unique writing, you can hear both Puccini’s influence on Britten and Britten’s influence on the likes of Adams. It was as if Britten drew upon Scarpia from Tosca to conjure the monster he created for Claggart, given formidable life by American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. Every time Van Horn appeared, amongst a cloud of cavernous brass, he owned the stage, he owned evil, his pathological brutality hardening his stance as the cane he wielded gave him the air of a macabre ringmaster taming his animals - and his voice of burning coals and fierce resonance seared its horrific intent brilliantly. Even when Claggart is dead and carried off from the claustrophobic vessel, it never felt like his evil had disappeared.

As much as you can feel Vere’s desire to command fairly - the lucent sound of the harp is often heard as his acoustic aura - he accepts that good has never been perfect. But perfectly suited indeed was tenor William Burden in the role, projecting his crisp and glowing tenor with breadth of character. Burden commands the stage in impeccably firm and considered style, portraying Vere’s dilemma in delivering justice - while acting against his conscience - poignantly in voice and body. And the contrasting vocal shades Burden gives in both prologue and epilogue, as the aged and erudite Vere looks back on the the affair, added compelling substance to his reflection on failing to prevent Billy’s execution.

John Chest in the title role of San Francisco Opera's Billy Budd
If I wasn’t completely won over by American baritone John Chest’s company debut in the title role initially, what was to come more than compensated. Chest is a picture of youth and looks for the part, covering the ship with boundless energy and making a convincing case of Billy’s absolute commitment to king and county. The voice is golden, burnished and airy with a seriously appealing timbre that suits Billy’s character, however, what sometimes let him down was murky diction that left him in the shadows of two champions in total command. Still, Chest decked out “And farewell to thee, old Rights o’ Man” sensationally and in “Billy in the Darbies” he brought astonishing wrought emotion to the music in one of the great highlights.

Excellent performances came from an accompanying crew numbering more than 70 strong male voices. Philip Horst’s Mr. Redburn, Christian Pursell’s Mr. Ratcliffe and Wayne Tigges’ Mr. Flint stood out robustly in their smart-uniformed higher ranks. Brenton Ryan as the beaten young and manipulated Novice and Philip Skinner as harmless old Dansker were highly effective too and the chorus mustered up exceptional vocal beauty from light waves of sacred-like chants to bursts of cyclonic force. In all, Grandage’s Billy Budd is an experience that both satisfies as a piece of superlative drama and bares its tragedy with unequivocal power.

Billy Budd
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 22nd September, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Monday, August 26, 2019

Aviation and operatic history take flight together once again in an unfussy and beautifully cast revival of Barry Conyngham's Fly from Melbourne Lyric Opera

Two flights of stairs below ground level at central Melbourne’s fourtyfivedownstairs, an Australian opera took to the stage for the first time since it premiered 35 years to the day. Composer Barry Conyngham’s Fly, about Australian aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave, was commissioned by Victorian State Opera for Melbourne’s newly built State Theatre which opened in 1984. Since then, the state opera company has been drastically reshaped and pared down considerably. To some extent, Conyngham’s Fly has too, but nothing feels lost in small local enterprise Melbourne Lyric Opera's unfussy and sensitively lit staging that retains the work’s musical integrity and is beautifully cast with a strong vocal outfit. Sadly, it appears Fly won’t be recorded for the nation to listen to on ABC Classic FM and that’s the disappointment.

Sam Roberts-Smith as Lawrence Hargrave
For those who handled the Australian $20 banknote between 1966 and 1994, the white-bearded Hargrave, surrounded by some of his gliders, was a familiar sight. A NSW coastal road that begins near Stanwell Park, where Hargrave flew his varied apparatus, is named after him, as is a Qantas A380. Fame, however, was the last thing he sought. And make no mention of patents because Hargrave wouldn’t have a bar of them, much to his wife’s annoyance. We learn this through Murray Copland’s direct and informative libretto in which Hargrave’s story is told in just 4 episodes. Its 80-minute duration, however, feels generously ripe and, in combination with Conyngham’s delightfully and deeply evocative music, Hargrave’s intelligence, mild eccentricity and humility radiate through.

Based around his home with his wife and three children, far more is explored than merely biographical storytelling. The two-act work moves from 1904, soon after the first successful manned flight, to a scene on New Guinea’s Fly River in 1876 when Hargrave was an engineer on Italian Luigi D’Albertis’ expedition and finally at his home in Woollhara in 1915 where news of the death of his only son Geoffrey at Gallipoli is received. It’s an achingly emotional conclusion for a man who demands his son’s name never be mentioned in his presence - tellingly, Geoffrey is a figure mentioned and never given form - and who recognises the race against death to share the fruit of his perennially inventive mind. Just as he believes Geoffrey died doing his duty, we presume Hargrave will too, doing his.

Shakira Dugan as Meg and Caroline Vercoe as Mrs Hargrave
In Lara Kerestes’ keenly perceptive direction, a sense of both drama and immediacy is created that glides along effortlessly and variably, from the hypnotic reading of Hargrave’s notes to candlelight by his wife and daughters Olive and Meg around ripples of music to the altercation between Hargrave and his wife over his disinterest in patenting his designs and the poignantly played out arrival of the priest who bares bad news. Around a simple design concept by Zunica that draws inspiration from Hargraves’ strung lightweight devices, the cast work wonderfully with her.

As Hargrave, Sam Roberts-Smith is in view most of the time, even when not singing, and when he finally comes forth from having been working at the rear, his baritone launches with well-oiled smoothness firing resonance and power to revel in. Further, in an Aussie accent that marks place like no other, Roberts-Smith’s interplay with his characters deftly shows Hargrave’s behavioural changes in the relationships around him, making engaging three-dimensionality of the man known to be called the mad kite flyer.

Sam Roberts-Smith as Hargrave and Cameron Silby as young Hargrave
Often seen frowning as his wife Margret, treasure-rich mezzo-soprano Caroline Vercoe gives a compelling performance that exposes the heart of her character with an aching sense of melancholy, usually singing at her husband rather than to him in her frustration. Shakira Dugan is the most effective in being understood, her lighter mezzo-soprano delivering pristine diction with vocal elegance and flexibility as the matter-of-fact, slightly sarcastic Meg. Lisette Bolton soars with dreamy delight with her pure and bright soprano that perfectly suits the wide-eyed and cheerful Olive. In the central scene on New Guinea’s Fly River that plays out a tad too long, a fine muscular tenor accompanies Cameron Silby’s earnest young Hargrove and warm baritone Cameron Taylor drips with mistrust as a sinisterly Luigi D’Albertis.

The ethereal threads, intoxicating translucency and uplift of tension in Conyngham’s music are brought to highly satisfying heights in artistic director and conductor Pat Miller’s resolute and tactful approach. Electronic keyboard players Louis Nicoll and James Dekleva add particularly fine atmospheric colour, as does Kim Tan on flute, alto flute and piccolo amongst the Lyric Ensemble of nine. Barry Conyngham was there to take a bow as well. Let’s hope he has the opportunity to do so again in the not too distant future.

Melbourne Lyric Opera
fourtyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Until 1st September 2019

Production Photos: Lachlan Woods

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Touching and disturbing, Breaking the Waves as opera is brought to the stage in a beautifully resolved production at San Francisco's West Edge Opera

Starting with a compelling and thought-provoking story, telling it with clarity and enacting it with dramatic sincerity can only be achieved through seamless collaboration. That’s exactly how composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves comes across in West Edge Opera’s disturbing and touching production. Further, success in the theatre often owes as much to long list of carefully resolved and well-aligned factors as it does to an ineffable and immeasurable quality that both resonates and challenges after. Breaking the Waves does that too.

Sara LeMesh as Bess McNeill
Based on Danish director Lars Von Trier’s 1996 film and premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2016, Breaking the Waves relates a foreboding story that feels both incredulous and real as it explores psychological uniqueness and collective thought. In fact, it does so much more than that as it spins a tornado of themes that won’t fail to bring challenging discussion.

The protagonist of the story is Bess McNeill, a young woman traumatised by the death of her brother years earlier but who has found love and sexual awakening when she meets and marries a North Sea oil rig worker, Jan Nyman. Bess is also inextricably joined to her austere and conservative Calvinist community in a remote coastal Scottish town. When Jan is paralysed in an industrial accident, Bess blames herself. Then, on Jan’s request but initially resistant, she agrees to have sex with other men so that the experience can be related back to him in order for their love to have ongoing sexual meaning.

It sounds perverse and, on the surface, there’s a smear of male chauvinism and sado-masochist psychology at play but their deep mutual love glows beautifully in Mazzoli’s richly faceted music and Vavrek’s vividly painted libretto. Vavrek also cleverly builds a tight narrative that is especially effective, as is Mazzoli’s superb use of chorus, in how Bess’ communion with God channels her religiously tuned psychological state, believing that every time she gives herself to other men she is giving herself to Jan and, in doing so, will help cure him. When Bess is later ostracised by her community and then beaten in a brutal episode that causes her death, Jan is cured in a miraculous ending (Wagner’s Tannhäuser came to mind) in which Bess becomes both victim and saint-like.

Sara LeMesh as Bess and Robert Wesley Mason as Jan
Sexual freedom and expression, euthanasia, suicide, bodily rights, religious indoctrination, self-sacrifice, discrimination and empowerment raise their heads, highlighting how we judge what we see as an outsider, our failings to understand the reasoning behind another’s actions and the bigger picture that influences our ideas. It’s a remarkably portrayed conglomeration of issues to stew over as part of a production perceptively directed by West Edge Opera General Director Mark Streshinsky and performed by a well-cast outfit.

As Bess, Sara LeMesh gives it her all in a role that demands extensive stage time, convincing physical application and vocal dexterity. The results LeMesh achieves are beyond measure as she takes Bess emotionally close to her audience with her cowering juvenile behaviour, her seeming delusional state, affections for Jan and her leggy prostituting poses, baring everything from vulnerability to strength with absolute conviction of heart and mind. With LeMesh comes a strikingly expressive soprano of feathery beauty and penetrating effect that matches her character convincingly.

Lovingness oozes and tested emotions are firmly rendered in Robert Wesley Mason’s handsomely rugged Jan as life turns upside down, his warm, muscular and resonant baritone a perfect casing and compliment for LeMesh’s Bess. Sumptuous mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich sings a devilishly good Dodo McNeill, Bess’ loyal and loving sister-in-law and robust tenor Alex Boyer impresses in balancing authority and compassion as Dr Richardson as does soprano Kristin Clayton as Bess’ uncompromising mother and Brandon Bell as Jan’s friend and co-worker Terry. Timings slipped here and there in an otherwise beautifully atmospheric chorus of ten males.

Kristin Clayton as Mrs Mc Neill, Sara LeMesh as Bess and
Robert Wesley Mason as Jan
Evan and Mark Streshinsky’s simple design incorporating a scrim-sheathed gabled building and strutted timber tower allows the action to be centred upon and move with fluidity from space to space. Christine Crook’s costumes adequately define the 1970s-set period and Pamila Gray’s lighting supports the dramatic mood appropriately.

Acoustic integrity, however, is undermined by The Bridge Yard’s metal cladding. At this penultimate performance, Music Director Jonathan Khuner elicited lovely tonal and textural form from the 22-strong musicians but there were times when intensity failed to lift according to drama, particularly as Bess and Jan bed for making love and when Bess says good-bye as Jan leaves for the oil rig. Mazzoli’s music is characterful and evocative, like a living organism that breathes and expires in all kinds of exciting ways. The night would have benefited even more if that musical organism had unleashed the gutsiness of the soul within.

Breaking The Waves
West Edge Opera
The Bridge Yard, Oakland CA
Until 18th August 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

In an outstanding team sporting spirit and excellence, Jonas Kaufmann soars in the title role of Opera Australia's Andrea Chénier in Melbourne

When was the last time you saw someone holding a sign outside a venue in the hope of securing a ticket to see opera in Melbourne? It’s so rare but that’s exactly what you saw outside Hamer Hall on Tuesday evening. And it certainly wouldn’t have been because they were desperate to see Umberto Giordano’s late 19th century tragic opera, Andrea Chénier, a work often criticised for its thin plot. Indeed, it has its holes but they were more than filled by the splendid musicality on show.

Ludovic Tézier, Pinchas Steinberg, Eva-Maria Westbroek
 and Jonas Kaufmann
The drawcard for Opera Australia’s sold-out concert performance of this French Revolution set story, of course, was internationally acclaimed opera star Jonas Kaufmann, handsome German tenor in the title role and the face of the opera’s advertising. Kaufmann didn’t disappoint either. Layer upon layer of magnificently coloured and carved vocals rang out from this gifted artist who deserves the glowing superlatives showered upon him, his Chénier replete with great dramatic and impassioned force and beguiling all the way to the devastating finale. Fortunately, alongside Kaufmann was an outstanding team sporting spirit and excellence.

For those familiar with Dutch soprano Eva Marie Westbroek, her appearance alone would have been worth the ticket - her lush tone, expressive depth and character engagement superbly depicting a curious yet vulnerable Maddalena de Coigny. Both Kaufmann and Westbroek are no strangers to the roles, having shared the stage together in David McVicar’s production for Covent Garden. Their chemistry had spark. And then there was the huge pleasure to hear Frenchman Ludovic Tézier bursting forth with remarkably aligned text-to-voice interpretations with lashings of grand, smouldering baritone strength in the role of Carlo Gérard.

The three international imports formed the centrepiece of librettist Luigi Illica’s doomed love triangle loosely based on actual events - Chénier, a poet eventually sent to the guillotine for condemning the post-revolutionary government, Maddalena, a young women of the aristocracy who falls in love with Chénier and raises her hand to join him in death, and Gérard, a servant with romantic thoughts for Maddelena, in the employment of Contessa di Coigny, who turns to revolutionary politician.

Pinchas Steinberg, and Jonas Kaufmann 
First to impress, Tézier immediately established Gérard’s position in Act 1 as rankled servant denouncing the class system with thrusting conviction and simmering emotion in “Compiacente a' colloqui del cicisbeo . . . Son sessant'anni”. Every time Tézier stepped out, his singing was robust, fiercely intense and exhilarating to the ear, especially so in Act 3’s monumental aria, “Nemico della Patria” in which Gérard has a change of heart after intending to indict Chénier.

Westbroek was next, imbuing Maddelena’s light-hearted opening aria about the bothersome task women face in dressing up with creamy tones and delightful poise. Then on, Westbroek steered Maddelena through a trajectory that brought out the emotional furnace within, showcasing her vocal dexterity with utter ease and wrapping Act 3’s “La mamma morta” in an achingly glorious shroud of loss and hope as she sings to Gérard.

Portraying Chénier with an oft introspective demeanour, Kaufmann began with a seductive lyrical smoothness  followed by surging muscularity in Chénier’s notable Act 1 aria that criticises the aristocracy and authority, “Un dì all’azzurro spazio”. In Act 3’s “Sì fui soldato”, in which Chénier stands before the court, Kaufmann daringly took it all to a cliff edge in a stellar highlight as Chénier accepts death but asks that his honour be kept. Throughout, Kaufmann’s impeccable phrasing, register shifts, expansion of sound from pianissimo to forte and nuanced details added immensely to his performance. With Westbroek in duet, the pair strode a brilliant path as they declared their love in Act 2’s “Ora Soave” and the sheer energy and magnitude of their final declaration of “Viva la morte insiem!” (Long live death together!) brought the evening to a stunning conclusion.

There is no mistaking that the background of their characters’ story is painted with the turmoil of revolution in Giordano’s richly orchestrated music. The passions and volatility within it were demonstrated in compelling style by conductor Pinchas Steinberg who was both considered and earnest in his attention to the singers. Out of the pit and on the stage, the Opera Australia Orchestra looked a marvellous sight, playing with diligence and expertise a score that resonated with vibrancy and acoustic clarity.

From the solid ranks of regular Opera Australia artists, smaller roles were catered for handsomely. Dominica Matthews’ elegant mezzo-soprano and snobbish Contessa di Coigny, Luke Gabbedy’s authoritative baritone and soldierly Mathieu, Sian Sharp’s radiant mezzo-soprano and loyalty as Maddelena’s maid Bersi and Anna Dowsley’s heartbroken but patriotic old Madelon were particularly strong while Benjamin Rasheed’s spying The Incredible could have mustered greater sinisterly breadth. From the side galleries, the Opera Australia Chorus sang with gorgeously calibrated unity in an evening that goes down as the year’s operatic climax in the city.

I hope the outside sign-bearing individuals got a ticket. More so, with the 2020 season announcement fast approaching, I hope Opera Australia can march on forward with this kind of offering again.

Andrea Chénier in Concert
Opera Australia
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
13th August 2019

Production Photos: Keith Saunders (taken at the Sydney Opera House)

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Barrie Kosky's daring Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth Festival is controversial yet poignant, with the music having the final say: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight 31st July 2019

In Richard Wagner’s glorious celebration of being German in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Jewishness gets a beating and, in Barrie Kosky’s daring and inescapably controversial production at the Bayreuth Festival, Wagner is put on trial. It’s a juxtaposition and interpretation that zooms in on Wagner’s ideology on love, art and politics – which his work so completely embodied – to such an extent it makes Kosky’s 21st-century perspective not simply instructive, but shockingly poignant.

Kosky, who is Australian and of Jewish ancestry, never ignores the work’s mid-16th century setting of a song competition in which the prize is the hand in marriage to the young woman Eva, arranged by her father Veit Pogner. Kosky brings it to colourful and bucolic life in the hundreds of characters costumed in stunning Renaissance dress by Klaus Bruns. But he tells another story through Rebecca Ringst’s intelligently conceived set designs, beginning with the warm, wooden salon in Wagner’s Bayreuth oasis, Wahnfried. Then, there is Wagner on stage as the protagonist of the story, cobbler and mastersinger Hans Sachs. We also see Cosima Wagner as Eva and Franz Liszt (Cosima’s father) as Eva’s father Veit Pogner. More Wagner lookalikes appear. The young knight Walther, who is in love with Eva and she with him, is a younger Wagner.

Wagner-Sachs is the centre of prankish attention, both entertaining and annoying, in a room squeezed with the characters of a play-within-a-play, including the comic mastersingers who enter from under the piano lid. It’s when the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi enters – the man who conducted the premiere of Parsifal and was accused of having an affair with Cosima –that Wagner-Sachs’ tune changes. As he sets about humiliating him, you’re in no doubt this is the town clerk Beckmesser, the story’s derided character who can’t sing and has no hope in hell of snagging the beautiful Eva.

Kosky even seems to allow Act I’s comedy to wear thin in order to highlight a reason for the composer to eventually stand trial for his anti-Semitism. When Wahnfried is rolled rearward at the end of Act I, a large hall is revealed, a military officer stands guard and Wagner is alone. Act II unfolds around the piled up furnishings of Wagner’s salon and comes to a head -– quite literally an enormous inflated head of an evil-faced hooked-nose Jew with curls and skullcap ballooning on stage at the close of Act II. Beckmesser is beaten under a portrait of Wagner amongst the chaos that bursts forth in a horribly confronting act of discrimination.

Act III opens in the Nuremberg courtroom where the trials of those involved with the Third Reich famously took place. It was clear from the start that the dashing and instinctively creative Walther was going to win Eva but he could only do so with Hans Sachs’ help. In Act III, with the younger and older Wagner together – Walther getting an interactive lesson in mastersinging from Hans Sachs -– it’s as if the values and foundations of German artistic pride are being thrashed out. And later, when the various guilds enter the Nuremberg courtroom overflowing with townsfolk in a magnificently directed scene, that Germanness comes to an immense celebration before Beckmesser is laughed at and dragged off as Walther and Eva are blissfully united.

In this, his third consecutive appearance as Hans Sachs since the production premiered in 2017, German baritone Michael Volle more than demonstrated how well equipped he is to handle the mountainous demands of the role. Eccentric and moody, Volle’s Sachs imparts much about Wagner, he never fails to look the part and the eloquence, heft and flexibility of his instrument enlivens the text without any loss of stamina through to the end of almost four and a half hours of music drama.

Also reprising his role as Walther, German Klaus Florian Vogt’s exuberance, youthful sunny tenor and agility on stage perfectly suits the young Wagner. Vogt’s performance didn’t go without issue as the top of the voice showed strain by the third act, most likely due to having sung the title role of Lohengrin the night before. Pearlescent soprano Camilla Nylund is a graceful presence as Eva, convincing in the love she has for Walther and the respectable tenderness she bears the older Sachs. The trusty, old-oak bass of Günther Groissböck resonates large as a sympathetic Veit Pogner. Rich and creamy mezzo-soprano Wiebke Lehmkuhl impresses with strong musical sensibility as Eva’s maid Magdalene, as does warm tenor Daniel Behle’s genial David. Most moving of all is characterful German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle’s buffoon-like Beckmesser in once again withstanding the ridicule served on him to the extent that tears were shed for the injustice he receives.

The huge chorus of townsfolk do remarkable work with the action and comic gesturing that make up their parts. Vocally, they combine in beguiling precision to produce the finest pianissimos and majestic fortes with a range that utterly radiates. And leading the musical behemoth, conductor Philippe Jordan is back again with a persuasive account that shows obvious support for the singers and untiring awareness of carrying dramatic momentum.

Judge him as you like, but when the concluding splendiferous hymn to German art rings out, the courtroom has emptied, the walls have lifted and Sachs, as Wagner, begins to conduct an incoming raked stand of musicians and choristers, it’s a poignant and powerful moment that gives his music the firm and final say.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Bayreuth Festival
Until 27th August 2019

Production Photos: Enrico Nawrath

A wild, confronting and bittersweet Tannhäuser at Bayreuth Festival: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight, 31st July 2019

Between Wartburg Castle’s bastion of civilisation and the decadence that reigns in Venusberg, Wagner’s original 13th-century setting for Tannhäuser gets oodles of modern mileage in Bayreuth’s new 2019 production. In his house debut, director Tobias Kratzer brings inventive contemporary relevance to the work, rather eschewing the medieval moral rigidity – as well as any overt reference to the theme of redemption – and lays bare a bleak romantic thriller of fatal attraction. The problem is, it doesn’t consistently work with Wagner’s libretto. On the other hand, with no surtitles to draw attention to inconsistencies, Kratzer at the very least takes you on a wild, confronting and bittersweet ride in three acts you won’t easily forget.

Here, Venusberg is not a place but is simply the anarchic lifestyle Venus and some colourful misfits set upon. During the long, vividly sculptured overture, Kratzer draws his audience into something of a B-grade movie on the big screen. The minx-like Venus at the wheel of her quirky old van, a vivacious black drag queen, a dwarf and Tannhäuser, as a clown, are driving through the German countryside, a law unto themselves and thinking nothing of diddling Burger King out of a free meal and siphoning off petrol before Venus, in a panic, mows down a policeman. With just enough sanity to feel remorse, it’s Tannhäuser’s exit out of lawlessness. Any sense that this is about the nature of love is challenging to find, but in relation to the work’s interest in artistic freedom, Kratzer makes in-roads.

Tannhäuser ends up not at Wartburg Castle but outside the Festspielhaus, praising God as the well-heeled and highly privileged pass by to engage with opera on the Green Hill. Wolfram von Eschenbach and the Landgrave’s hunting party are singers who become part of Act II in a staid period production of the actual opera, with Tannhäuser returning to his career, in the title role naturally, alongside Elisabeth. In black and white video footage, Venus and her accomplices are shown to be in pursuit. They break into the theatre, Venus restraining a chorus woman and ending up on the actual stage in a hoot of a scene as the Minnesingers begin the contest on the nature of love, and she bears witness to the actual love Tannhäuser and Elisabeth share. Surprises follow, with the police showing up and arresting Tannhäuser after he presumably takes the blame for the hit-and-run depicted in the overture.

Between a gutsy Venus and emotionally spent Elisabeth, Tannhäuser comes across as unlikeable and lost, moving from one world to the other somewhat freely but never finding solace in either. The strength that comes from Kratzer’s vision for Elisabeth is that she, an artist herself but hopelessly distraught over Tannhäuser’s second absence – not on a pilgrimage to Rome but doing time in prison it appears – opens herself to inclusiveness while waiting for his return in Act III’s roadside junkyard. It comes too late. In her abjection, her career is over, she has sex with Wolfram, he having to don the clown suit, and out of sight she takes her life. A revolve reveal a black drag queen on a billboard as both icon and luxury brand, Le Gateau Chocolat, representing the artist as commercial success. Oskar, the sailor-suited drumming dwarf has lost his spark, Venus continues on her merry way and, though it’s not clear if he dies or not, Tannhäuser feels deep remorse again.

The final act, despite having produced the most impressive singing in what was an overall thrillingly sung opening night, feels conceptually restless. But while the glove doesn’t always fit Wagner’s medieval tale, the production jigs along with uncanny appeal to his mid-19th century score. Kratzer’s creative team of Rainer Sellmaier (sets and costumes), Manuel Braun (video) and Reinhard Traub (lighting) all contribute greatly to its overall execution. In his Bayreuth debut, Valery Gergiev conducts with such verve that at multiple turns it was like hearing the score anew.

Continuing his long association with Bayreuth that started in 2004 in the very same role of Tannhäuser, American Stephen Gould’s experience and potent heldentenor was in full evidence here. The big, molten centre of his chest voice conveyed much of the character’s soul, and although some of the high head notes he hit in the first act were uneven, Gould’s performance in the final act, particularly his wrenching Roman Narrative, was outstanding.

In her Bayreuth debut, Norwegian dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen brought exceptional crystalline vocal strength and emotional translucency to Elisabeth. Mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova, stepping in for Ekaterina Gubanova who injured herself during rehearsal, earned thunderous applause for her uber-lithe and feisty Venus, the voice pliant and assured, her top notes clear and penetrating.

Markus Eiche is superbly cast as Wolfram von Eschenbach, bringing complexity to the mix and singing with a burnished baritone sound of radiance. Eiche’s Act III Song to the Evening Star was of particular poignancy, an aria that hints at Elisabeth’s impending death and which was sung with post-coital tenderness. Hefty Danish bass Stephen Milling balanced authority and compassion as Landgraf Hermann, while  German actor Manni Laudenbach as Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat were rhythm and zest combined, indispensable to the production. The chorus too were convincing in acting and excellent in voice.

A final thought. In referencing a period-set Tannhäuser in his interpretation, Kratzer could also be alluding to the need for opera never to shy away from reinvention. That the Festspielhaus, dating back to 1876, has embraced change and is committed to presenting Wagner’s work in ever critical and creative ways is glowingly on show here. As part of this intrepid production, in a Festspielhaus first, Le Gateau Chocolat performed in the garden during the first interval alongside Manni Laudenbach’s Oskar beating his drum and Venus sorting her banners, bearing the words “Frei im Wollen, frei im Thun, frei im Geniessen” (Free in will, free in doing, free in enjoyment). You get the distinct feeling that Bayreuth not only takes its commitment seriously, it can do so with a good tongue-in-cheek look at itself.

Bayreuth Festival
Until 25th August 2019

Production Photos: Enrico Nawrath

Thursday, July 18, 2019

No tears for Graeme Murphy's bold approach in Opera Australia's new production of Madama Butterfly

Somewhere futuristic and far-fetched, a new and reimagined Madama Butterfly from Opera Australia has replaced the sensitively drawn floating world of abstracted tradition that so intrigued for more than 20 years from director Moffatt Oxenbould. For the company’s new investment in one of the repertoire’s most popular works, choreographer and director Graeme Murphy has dug deep, bringing sexual exploitation and sinisterness to the fore in the darkest Butterfly you’re likely to see. And of course, how could Murphy not resist bringing his choreographic nous to the stage? The problem was, I had later realised, that no tear was shed when Cio-Cio-San ceremoniously prepared herself for the knife’s fatal delivery as she farewells her three year-old son and dreams of her husband returning are shattered, only to find he does so with an American bride.

Are those tears of importance? I’ve never known a Butterfly in any other way. But the sum effect in Murphy’s production of often literal and symbolic use of text to bring storytelling alive in imagery on 10 lofty high-definition LED screens - as breathtaking as some of them are - and with no end of wild and puzzling effects, is often counterproductive, confusing, distracting and zaps the emotional heart of the work. Murphy does, however, find moments to expose the opera’s musical and vocal drama without hindrance, namely in Acts 2 and 3.

As if to wash one’s hands of allusions to the ignorances imbedded in Orientalism, America appears stuck in the 1960s while Japan is a highly advanced technological world light years ahead. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the concoction means. Pinkerton’s simple naval uniform, Sharpless’ light suit and Kate Pinkerton’s obvious reference to Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit are nothing on the daring culturally distilled and theatrical excesses of the Japanese world achieved in Jennifer Irwin’s amazing costumes.

While the first darting and beating bars of the music open, Murphy spreads the butterfly motif across the full width of the stage with a Cio-Cio-San double in red ropes of bondage as men writhe about in attempts to grope scantily clothed women above. Fair and square, Cio-Cio-San is a victim and pushed further, a strong sense of her objectification rings through. Assigned to her persona are brashness and gritty astuteness but it often feels at odds and forced.

The action is mostly concentrated on what looks like an oversized burner of a glass-top electric cooktop, raised and sprouting from the stage floor on a revolve and connected by a staircase as part of Michael Scott-Mitchell’s production design. At times it feels precarious and restricting but it provides a good platform for the voices to project while so much seems to be happening around it.

In too many instances, sumptuous soprano Mariana Hong’s powerful performance on Tuesday night was compromised by all this digital and visual indulgence but her Cio-Cio-San’s inner strength, spark and directness beamed. The top of the voice catapulted with splendour, her range delivering a wealth of expressivity and only the use of extended pianissimo missing opportunities to craft a greater sense of vulnerability. But Hong’s “Un bel di vedremo” was paced with convincing beauty, an impactful sound picture as the aria’s translated Japanese script bubbles out from around her then comes crashing to pieces, in one of the more skilful scenes, as the vision ends.

As Pinkerton, Diego Torre’s wonderfully passionate and voluminous tenor was put to expressive use, giving you that rare sense of sympathy for the spineless cheater Pinkerton is as he struggles with remorse. Together with Hong, the voices shared penetrating soul in Act 1’s duet of private post-nuptial tenderness but why on earth were a male and female dancer projected large on a scrim in front of them? Mezzo-soprano Agnes Sarkis’ strident vocal display as a strong-headed and loyal Suzuki matched well with Hong’s resolve. Warmth and compassion oozed from smooth baritone José Carbó in distinguished style as the Consul Sharpless and Virgilio Marino, robust in voice and mixing amiability and slyness in equal parts as Goro, was impressive. It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the Opera Australia Chorus but the “Humming Chorus” wafted dreamily en pointe despite another scene that raised question marks, created as a dream sequence Cio-Cio-San walks through.

Fortunately, the score’s delicacy, lyricism and drama fluoresced under conductor Nicholas Milton’s lead, the strings in particular responding with alertness and character and the attack on key dramatic moments delivered with heartfelt playing.

It’s a show of dazzling turns and ideas that eventually exhaust. Nevertheless, I want to witness this Madama Butterfly again, to give it another chance and see if I can derive something more, even without demanding tears, from its bold approach.

Madama Butterfly 
Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 10th August, 2019

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A new Australian opera magnifies the life of an artist in composer Elena Kats-Chernin's Whiteley for Opera Australia

In celebrated Australian artist Brett Whiteley’s output, a voluptuous sense of line, a panoramic sense of space and an often vivid but restful sense of colour combine in an unmistakably identifiable mood that characterises his work. But behind the art, addiction never went away. You’re either heading away from it or heading towards it as Whiteley lays bare in Opera Australia’s newly commissioned work, Whiteley. Dead at 53 in 1992 from an opiate overdose, his tumultuous life was exactly the kind of story that opera could magnify.

Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley
A purely biographical angle, however, would never have worked. Substance was required to fuel a drama and give something to cling to its characters. Teaming together, Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin and librettist Justin Fleming combine both in a work that initially struggles to find a footing but eventually rises with insight to rewarding heights. 

Kats-Chernin, a bowerbird of sorts who decorates the pit with a staggering assortment of finery to allure her listener, has constructed a richly textured score incorporating her ingenious orchestral knack for melodious, imposing and meandering soundscapes. Her music holds the life-story together as Fleming’s text moves between raw conversational and somewhat forced poeticism, including a little humour and oft-esoteric rumination on art and existence which Whiteley raises and challenges as he looks for the answers in a drug and alcohol-sozzled and zoned-out state. 

Those dark scenes, as Whiteley oscillates between reality and precipice, are perhaps only a veneer on the work’s raison d’être. What Fleming attempts to portray is the contrasting ‘ways of seeing’ between Whiteley and his wife Wendy, he setting up an argument with nature, while she wishes to commune with it. Most of all this lifts off in Act 2 and the more Whiteley collapses into bouts of delusion, the more his wife Wendy finds strength and tranquility. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition that sets up a poignant finale in which Whiteley’s lone death is followed by a mother’s pain and a calming, ethereal trio of mother, Wendy and daughter Arkie giving rest to his soul and purpose to his legacy. 

Julie Lea Goodwin as Wendy and Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley
It leaves Act 1’s swiftly moving scenes from childhood through to his expulsion from Fiji with Wendy and Arkie, feeling somewhat dramatically undernourished. Along the way much is packed in - Whiteley’s first meeting with Wendy, his move to London, the voices of critics and his unforgettable meeting with the Queen, the move to New York and onto Fiji, the art prizes and the demon of addiction he shares with mentors Charles Baudelaire, Piero della Francesca and Francis Bacon, the later move to Sydney, the partying and extramarital affairs just some of the chronological line of scenes.

David Freeman’s direction cuts to the chase in well-resolved vignettes that serve as best they can in the shortcomings of some of the libretto’s touched-upon events. There is lots to take in on its overloaded sequence but, utilising high-definition LED screens that slide in and out vertically and horizontally depicting art and context, Dan Potra’s visual design delivers marvellously in breadth and imagination with Sean Nieuwenhuis’s video work and John Rayment’s lighting. 

In the title role, living life riskily under a curly mop of sunny hair, English tenor Leigh Melrose gave opening night a performance of riveting driven intent and flexing muscled voice. In declamatory, tender, fierce and reflective mode, Melrose shaped the multi-dimensional Whiteley to compelling effect and never lost sight of the challenges.

Leigh Melrose in the title role and cast of Opera Australia's Whiteley
Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin was equally effective as Wendy, giving penetrating strength and lustrous meaningful voice to her part in portraying the uneasy but indisputable bonds and contrasting ideology with Whiteley. As daughter Arkie, soprano Kate Amos sung with radiance and acuity, growing up and growing concerned about her father’s condition, serving up one of the most emotional highlights as she shares time with Melrose’s Whiteley as he attempts to shake his drug dependency in a white-light Japanese Zen garden.

Natasha Green sang with delicacy as the younger Arkie. Mezzo-soprano Dominica Matthews was suitably and superbly plush in voice as stalwart mother, Beryl Whiteley, and a long list of cameo roles were sung with vigour, notably Nicholas Jones’ Michael Driscoll, Gregory Brown’s Patrick White, Richard Anderson’s Joel Elenberg and Angela Hogan’s Janice Spencer.

Kats-Chernin’s score goes a long way in marrying the turbulence, persona and celebrations in Whiteley’s life to music and conductor Tahu Matheson actualises it with particular verve and beauty, leading the Opera Australia Orchestra in strong form. But by the time Whiteley comes to its tranquil close, curiously revealing and evocative as the work can be, amongst all the shoe-horned storytelling, there seem to be gaps that could do with either removal or filling. 

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 30th July, 2019

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Sondheim's A Little Night Music enchants in a delectably sung and buoyantly told portrayal from Victorian Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun in print, Tuesday 2nd July 2019.

With A Little Night Music, Victorian Opera’s latest plunge into the works of Stephen Sondheim is bound to bring joy to fans and newcomers of Broadway’s master of music’s marriage with text. Once again under Stuart Maunder’s astute direction, a story that swills the nitty gritty of human relationships is buoyantly told in a delectably sung and enchantingly portrayed drama.

The cast of Victorian Opera's A Little Night Music
In the manner of Oscar Wilde’s sharp witted humour, Sondheim’s inventive lyrics effortlessly reflect the sophistication that resides in Hugh Wheeler’s book. 

The action takes place in a privileged corner of Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century where expectations of propriety are instantly shattered. Middle-aged lawyer Fredrik has married Anne, a young woman 30 years his junior but, 11 months into the marriage, she remains a virgin. When he meets an old flame, the glamorous actress Desirée, what ensues is a centrifugally drawn cast of characters whose entanglement exposes everything from sexual tension, desire, frustration, jealously and repression. 

It’s all superbly illuminated in a creamily whisked up melodic affair written predominantly in waltz meter while along the way, hearts are broken, romance takes flight and love is renewed. 

Simon Gleeson as Fredrik and Elisa Colla as Anne
Musically, the ambience is perfectly paced in conductor Phoebe Briggs command, if at times the verve and swirl of the orchestration isn’t milked.

A revolve is deftly utilised to segue scenes as layers of gauze curtains waft in and out in Roger Kirk’s ornately slick stage design. Sumptuous and summery period costumes are captured with beauty under Trudy Dalgleish’s subdued lighting and within this dreamy picture, the large en-pointe ensemble are utterly radiant. 

Ali McGregor channels emotive truth and charm as the vivacious Desirée, singing the works standout musical number, “Send In the Clowns”, like it was written for her. Empathy and self-realisation rise through the cracks in Simon Gleeson’s suave and stylish Fredrik and Elisa Colla sparkles as a complex creature of coquettish and coy sorts as Anne.

Everyone is a flawless fit with Verity Hunt-Ballard’s trenchant Charlotte, Samuel Dundas as her husband’s dissolute Carl-Magnus and Alinta Chindzey’s pert Petra ahead of the excellence while a quintet of commentators elegantly navigate harmony and dance. 

A Little Night Music
Victorian Opera
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 6th July, 2019


Production Photos: 

Monday, July 15, 2019

A generous slice of rarer bel canto heaven may promise more to come - Victorian Opera's Heroic Bel Canto soars high

Reams of ravishing Rossini, dollops of Donizetti and just a bit of Bellini - Victorian Opera have brought together three of the greatest exponents of music written for voices that require superhuman technique and dashing expression in a one night only concert, Heroic Bel Canto. The night proved to be altogether devastatingly heroic, seductive and meteoric.

Daniella Barcellona and Jessica Pratt
After four consecutive years of concert opera featuring four of Bellini’s most acclaimed works (Norma, I puritani, La sonnambula and I Capuleti e i Montecchi), a deliciously crafted program of lesser performed arias, duets and ensembles in praise of the art of bel canto spun its dazzling charms from go to whoa.

Included were excerpts from Rossini’s final Italian opera, the tragedy Semiramide, the infectiously comic work, Le Comte Ory and the rarely performed biblical opera, Ciro in Babilonia. And included from Donizetti’s copious output was a taste of the three-act operatic melodrama, Linda di Chamounix that, crossing fingers, will see its Australian premiere soon.

No stranger to these ornamental gems and heading the program was the divine vocal beauty of soprano Jessica Pratt along with new-to-local-audiences, Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. Local tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas completed the headline trio, a singer who has certainly yielded heroic results in recent principal roles for Victorian Opera. A contingent of solid local performers and VO associate artists rose to the occasion splendidly.

Thanks to Artistic Director and the evening’s conductor Richard Mills, it was one of those evenings when you felt you were indeed a part of their family. Mills embraced his audience with witty and informative introductions, some a little on overtime but all delivered with passionate excitement. And perhaps a tease? Who else became convinced one or more of these Rossini works are on the company’s future list?

Daniella Barcellona, Jessica Pratt
and Carlos E. Bárcenas
Poised and glamorous, Pratt sung with eloquently ornamented and indelibly phrased beauty. ‘O luce di quest’ anima’ from Linda di Chamounix, an aria gifted to stars, came down from the heavens in an utterly stunning interpretation of perilous high flying notes, pure toned smoothness and darting flexibility. And when it was over, it was like coming out from being under her spell.

Daniela Barcellona, sturdy and plush, animated her performance superbly, her gesturing hands and vivacious expression doing as much convincing work as her increasingly beguiling vocal magnitude. For the agonised Leonora in ‘O mon Fernand’ from Donizetti’s La Favorite, Barcellona exposed the aria’s dramatic interior and great beauty in a concert highlight. In duet with Pratt, Semiramide’s ‘Ebben a te ferisci’ became a poignant, emotionally transparent and supercharged drama.

Tenor Bárcenas keeps on impressing, the chest opening up with warm, muscled strength, the top radiant and soaring, if only momentarily tight, and the bottom of the voice was sounding evermore rich and striking in an especially fine rendition of ‘Deserto in terra’ from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano.

A singer with a tantalising future, oaky baritone Stephen Marsh sang with great command and pristine diction alongside Barcellona in ‘Ai capricci della sorte’ from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, the chemistry magnetic, the voices in comfortable harmony. One short aria, ‘Chi disprezza gl’infelici’ from Ciro in Babilonia, came with instant appeal from lush mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan who brought to it a slice of smoothly drafted magic.

Daniela Barcellona and Stephen Marsh
And when they were joined by soprano Kathryn Radcliffe, baritones Samuel Piper, Nathan Lay and Raphael Wong and bass-baritone Matthew Thomas in the penultimate piece, a lively and agilely sung display of ‘Livorno, dieci Aprile’ from Donizetti’s farcical Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrale, Victorian Opera seemed to be saying, “We have no trouble in guaranteeing you the goods!” Following, the rapturous trio and finale of ‘A la faveur de cette nuit obscure’ from Le Comte d'Ory made it ever so clearer.

And Happy 50th Birthday to one of the city’s indispensable cultural assets, Orchestra Victoria. Playing with great unity and serving up generous textures, the team supported the artists with familial-like care. Opening the first part, the overture to Semiramide suffered from a mild amount of tarnished brass but the thrusting overture to Bellini’s Norma that opened the second part of the program was a showcase of richness and sensitivity. In other areas, principal flautist Lisa-Maree Amos and Sally Walker on piccolo deserve special mention for carrying the woodwinds on exceptional flights of artistry and concertmaster Yi Wang led the way on violins that perfectly synchronised and delighted in their pizzicato expression.

So which will be the first to get fully staged treatment? Semiramide, Le Comte d’Ory or Linda di Chamounix? I’ll take a stab in the dark with Semiramide, one of Dame Joan Sutherland’s most thrillingly sung roles and one that Pratt would easily enamour local audiences with who have come to know her commitment and style. Then again, Melbourne Opera may very well pip them at the post.

Heroic Bel Canto
Victorian Opera
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
14th July, 2019

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Sunday, June 23, 2019

More than a tale of love and sacrifice, director David McVicar's Rusalka emphasises a universal tragedy at San Francisco Opera

I had often approached Rusalka with a degree of scepticism. When I see it, I’m always reminded of the spell it must have spun. It was the first opera I saw - an English National Opera production back in 1984. Only a fragmented memory of that evening remains although I remember nodding off along the way in those head dropping moments that instantly wake you back up. For whatever reason, I haven’t stopped going to see opera ever since. In San Francisco Opera’s new production, originally directed by David McVicar for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014 and seen here under revival director Leah Hausman, the spell has been recast with such potency in a magnificent and mystical staging that I was on my feet, converted forever and swimming in the depths of its various themes. Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s evocative work has found in McVicar’s brave and visionary concept a perfectly harmonised home.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka
In Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto, drawn from various near and distant sources from folklore and fairy tales, the Slavic mythological 'rusalka' - a water nymph who inhabits rivers and lakes - is the subject of a story that inspired and is most recognisable in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s lesser known Undine. At its core, Rusalka is a turbulent tale of love and sacrifice but other themes abound in this saddening fairy tale about a water nymph who falls for a prince and risks everything to become mortal in order to attain his love.

McVicar delves deeper than the depths of Rusalka’s watery abode, diving beyond emotional tribulations and casting a concept in a contrasting and haunting inky-hued and silvery form that puts man in conflict with nature. Kvapil’s libretto alludes to this interpretation. With it, a dark fairytale is turned into a universal tragedy. From the sides of the stage, the presence of a massive retaining wall demands curiosity, its infrastructural intrusion on the moonlit, leafless wooded landscape rendering the natural beauty of Rusalka’s lake a murky marshy habit. Even the forest nymphs, who dance about inelegantly as depraved creatures in soiled attire, appear stained by man’s progress.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka and
Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince
The prince is a huntsman, his animal kill covering the palace ballroom - a startlingly beautiful panelled and trussed medieval hall - in exaggerated, informative intent. In the kitchen too, before the grand ball, emphasis on man’s barbarism against the natural world is portrayed with cuts of bloody hanging meat and, comic as it appears, the kitchen hand’s turkey gutting and stuffing is a grossly forced act. And then it dawned on me that during the overture’s dramatic swing, the prince raises his hand in a gesture of longing and loss to an impressive large-scaled painting of Rusalka’s realm in which he will be drawn back to. A longing for Rusalka? In retrospect, that gesture symbolises humanity’s shame for the catastrophe imposed on nature that cannot be undone. For its three-act entirety, the work is given superlative visual allure and stimulation from McVicar’s creative team (sets by John Macfarlane, costumes by Moritz Junge and lighting by David Finn).

Musically and vocally, too, it is carried off with highly impressive results. Within Dvořák’s lush orchestration there’s a whiff of Wagner, a sense of Strauss and a touch of Tchaikovsky among his influences and conductor Eun Sun Kim, in her company debut, captures the darkness, the gossamer-like, the bombastic and mystery of the score with elan.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Rusalka and Jamie Barton as Ježibaba
American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Rusalka is a breathtaking display of stirring vocal power against the agonised hopelessness she has finding happiness in neither a watery world nor that of the prince’s. Intrinsically an embodiment of nature, lithe and melancholic, Willis-Sørensen garners sympathy for Rusalka’s plight as much as displeasure in watching her desperation for love directed to a misogynistically portrayed prince. In both lyrical and dramatic splendour, the top of the voice gleams while the dark undercurrents of the low range stream without hindrance. Act 1’s celebrated aria, “Song to the Moon” is beguiling, the vocal artistry and effect in Willis-Sorensen’s command setting a quivering trepidation in motion, alongside her invocation to the moon to shine its light and her being on the prince, that pitifully verges on prescience.

Imposing stentorian American tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s Prince is handsomely distinguished and utterly unlikeable. For a man who sees Rusalka as a trophy of the hunt, every kiss comes with an ugly force that signifies mans assault on nature and Jovanovich’s vocal muscularity and compelling acting suited the role perfectly. The fabulously rich and striking resonance of Canadian soprano Sarah Cambidge plants determination and jealousy with ease on the Foreign Princess. Surrounded by her fine trio of sinister flapping and pecking crows, American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has no trouble combining a smug and menacing Ježibaba with mountains of smouldering vocal contortions as a seemingly embattled protector of nature.

Sarah Cambidge as the Foreign Princess
As Rusalka’s father, the water goblin Vodník, Icelandic Kristinn Sigmundsson’s hefty bass and nuanced acting strike a strong relationship with fatherly duties and nature’s seeming cautioning-like indicator. Smaller roles are strongly filled with mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm as the kitchen hand and bass-baritone Philip Horst as the gamekeeper and Natalie Image, Simone McIntosh and Ashley Dixon harmonise delightfully as the wood nymphs over music that surrounds them in a most Wagnerian manner.

When the tale reaches the finale, an aching sense of remorse peels out across the landscape and there seems hope for the natural world. Under the spell of its visually dark and enticing complexity, luscious orchestral tapestry and splendid vocal ardency, you find it’s easy to understand seeing it just once is not enough for some besotted opera goers.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 28th June, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver