Saturday, November 16, 2019

Hansel and Gretel’s purposeful storytelling and magical transition releases its charm at San Francisco Opera

In a family-friendly mix of good and evil and a delightful touch of hocus pocus, Engelbert Humperdinck’s most familiar opera, Hansel and Gretel, opened in a new production for San Francisco Opera on Friday night. Co-produced with London’s Royal Opera and both directed and designed by Antony McDjonald, the work pours out a good measure of more relaxed opera entertainment as the holiday season approaches.

Sasha Cooke as Hansel and Heidi Stober as Gretel 
That’s not to say that Humperdinck approached this Grimm brothers’ fairytale lightly. There’s so much glorious space to bask in with Humperdinck’s tapestry of meandering and effervescent melodies, musical landscapes and darker interjections to match the intensity of the heavyweight master of Bayreuth, Richard Wagner. And German librettist Adelheid Wette’s translated and sung English text for this two-hour, three-act 1893 opera is a rhyming cracker. 

McDonald has taken the more traditional and folkloric conceptual path and added characters of requisite largesse and vitality to its picture. A cuckoo clock that winds time from good times to poor above a proscenium-filled framed alpine setting sets the story in motion. It’s a cosy start that leads into the reality of Hansel and Gretel’s shirked at chore-ridden day. That the magic is kept at bay until Act 2’s evocative forest scene, one in which Hansel and Gretel’s dream becomes a wonderfully woven story of fairytale characters, is understandable. If not for Lucy Burge’s amusingly choreographed routines in Act 1 the kids of the audience might have demanded more. 

Michaela Martens as Mother and Alfred Walker as Father 
But then madness is mixed with magic in Act 3 when the witch’s house in the forest appears in a reference to Hitchcock’s  creepy Psycho mansion - a cake, in fact, with a giant knife sliced through the top. By this time, you can see how McDonald has purposefully transitioned the storytelling. After a fabulously sticky chocolatey end for the witch, it comes to land gently on the released children, angelically sung, in a thankfully not too bombastic god-guiding end of prayer’s value.

On opening night, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was a clear standout, rich and resonant of voice as the more pragmatic Hansel and full of adorable cheekiness to go with it. Soprano Heidi Stober added radiance as the sensible and dreamy Gretel, producing the magnificent fullness of a soaring top but bogged down at times by fuzzy diction and phrasing that dissipated in the lower parts of the voice. Importantly, the operatic pair appear in their element as nimble young siblings who are more or less struggling with but learning to balance responsibility with easy-come fun and adventure.

Dream pantomime tableau from Hansel and Gretel
As the parents trying to balance their own issues, dark mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens and earthy baritone Alfred Walker were a powerful blend of contrast and connection with Martens giving tenor Robert Brubaker’s raggedly sung psychotic witch a run for his money in conjuring up menace. Ashley Dixon was invitingly warm as the Sandman and Natalie Image sprinkled her charms as the Dew Fairy.

Overall, however, some attention seemed needed from the cast in projecting more consistently and smoothly. And, despite the gorgeously pronounced patches of expansive music under the baton of Christopher Franklin, the music occasionally ran its own show. With a three-week performance run to come, there’s wriggle room for tweaking such details. Hansel and Gretel is one of the great operatic joys of opera and once seen and heard, as little nippers sing out for, it’s hard not to imagine its story told in any other way.

Hansel and Gretel 
San Francisco Opera 
War Memorial Opera House
Until 7th December 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Friday, November 15, 2019

Captivating music of the highest order with Simone Young conducting the San Francisco Symphony

At Thursday night’s San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall, in an hour-long resplendent vocal dramatisation, Act 1 of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre headlined the program. And with it, the ongoing exhilaration and wide-ranging temperament achieved in the score certainly would have left many wide-eyed and open-mouthed patrons hungry for the whole lengthy lot. On display was an extraordinary showcase of meaningful singing and captivating music of the highest order.

Stuart Skelton, Simone Young, Emily Magee and Ain Anger
It was great to see American soprano Emily Magee and Estonian bass Ain Anger perform again to remind me of their great gift of expressiveness. But, as a visitor from way way down south, how grand it was to see two Aussies together on the concert stage with heldentenor Stuart Skelton alongside Simone Young commandeering a right marvel.

Skelton sung the role of Siegmund with unshakable, heroic strength in a voice surely at its finest, a voice that captured seemingly infinite nuance of statement, inquiry and thought and that was as intoxicating to the ear as it was gripping for the soul. “Wälse! Wälse! ... Nothung! Nothung!” More! More of that extraordinary sound please, was what the audience seemed to want. With a Skelton kind of ferocity - sitting at the edge of my seat just a few metres away - it seemed every aching desire a human pleads for felt like it could be summoned with ease. And Skelton’s superlative preparation and experience meant he could do without the hindrance of a music stand.

A radiant voiced Emily Magee lived her Sieglinde heart and soul, lifting the high notes to beautifully formed treasures and communicating her condition with utmost exactness. Though not as solid in the depths of chesty lows, Magee’s was a convincing and stunning performance that presented robust and sensitive handling alongside Skelton’s heft.

Simone Young conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra 
Ain Anger! Well, what a handsome presence and, with it, what a strapping fine voice he drenched his audience in!  Anger left no stone unturned in bringing out all the tension and menacing undercurrent in Hunding’s character and did so with such unselfconscious suavity.

The music breathed its internal restlessness and poignancy under Young’s vigour and gestural voluptuousness. In the first part of the program Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, however much of a contrast it provided, never felt overshadowed. Composed late in life during the end of World War II, it received just as much love from Young and the versatile players of the San Francisco Symphony. Metamorphosen built its appeal over its 26 minute duration to become an absorbing work as it bleeds from the solemn and introspective to yearning for optimism and closing sense of tranquility. In a work orchestrated for 23 stringed instruments, an experience was created that exposed the inner polish of its many layers through impressive drift and charge of the tempi. And the musicians played superbly, both like soloists and synchronisers as they spun it all into rich textures.

Perhaps it was never going to be surprising that this concert ended as one of those nights in the year when one gets smothered in such an illuminating confluence  of forces. On top of that it became a further reminder that art and humankind are indeed a blessed pair.

Simone Young Conducts Wagner
San Francisco Sympathy 
Davies Symphony Hall

Until 16th November 2019

Performance Photos: Stefan Cohen

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Scaled down on a shoestring, Melbourne's BK Opera brings the tragedy home in Puccini's La bohème

Since 2016, BK Opera have been working at grassroots level with emerging artists in bringing opera to audiences in a wide range of performance spaces with no ounce of snobbery attached. Concluding its third full season (the little company presents around three productions each year), Artistic Director Kate Millet has taken on Puccini’s 1896 premiered popular work, La bohème, and swung it into the 1950s with a sharp sense of immediacy. You’re up close and intimate in the cosy ambience of another new venue for this itinerant band and, despite being a little ragged at the edges, it’s a stark reminder that operatic storytelling exists on so many scales.

Belinda Dalton as Mimi, James Penn as Rodolfo and
Jordan Auld as Musetta
Millet’s pared production is sung with passion whilst delivered on a shoestring in its telling of the central tragic love story of the ailing seamstress Mimi and struggling poet Rodolfo. And although it might be stretching things in believing you’re amongst the salons and cafes of 1950s Paris, you certainly get the impression that they and their bohemian friends are just as well dealing with the blows of young love and life as much as young adults amongst us do today.

Belinda Dalton is an excellently cast Mimi and well worth the ticket alone. Dalton’s Mimi is alert, sensitive and carries a deeply felt inner strength that provides thoughtful contrast to her tuberculosis-stricken petite frame. Vocally, Dalton colours and texturises her music attractively with a notable purity of tone and appealing modulation to accompany it, carrying it seamlessly through until the final act’s teary end.

Tenor James Penn, exchanging his usual lead as conductor for lead character, is an ardent, edgy and excitable Rodolfo, Mimi’s sentimental and self-confessed jealous lover. The chemistry Penn shares with Dalton doesn’t always spark and there’s a tendency to force the vocal lines but there are many moments of genuine feeling that waft out on his more subtly produced singing.

Daniel Felton as Schaunard and the cast of BK Opera's La bohème
On the other hand, there are no shortage of sparks between suave baritone Andrew Alesi and radiant soprano Jordan Auld as the hot-headed painter Marcello and flirtatious Musetta respectively, Auld making a particularly alluring example of a woman not to be messed with.

As the philosopher Colline, bass Peter Tregear sings a compellingly solemn sayonara to his dearly loved coat and, as the musician Schaunard, smooth baritone Daniel Felton is a nimble presence without the flamboyance in style you would generally see. And, in a decidedly clever act of casting the bohemian’s landlord Benoit and Musetta’s wealthy old lover Alcindoro as two archetypal opposite females rolled into one part, alto Alicia Groves provides a sweet injection.

Puccini’s masterfully painted shifts of sweeping melody, dramatic rises and abrupt shocks, however, rarely lift off the page. On opening, it didn’t matter how agile and competent around the keyboard Pam Christie was or how conductor Joseph Hie moved the night along, the lack of warmth, richness and resonance in the music was disappointing. The translated titles projected on the back wall weren’t behaving either and disappeared for long lengths of time, although some such things are a minor blot on the stage. Still, it’s opera with a big heart and a welcome part of Melbourne’s scene.

La bohème 
BK Opera
Wesley Anne
250 High Street, Northcote
Until 21st November 2019

Production Photos: Courtesy of BK Opera

Sunday, November 10, 2019

In director Olivier Tambosi’s energised revival, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut returns splendidly to San Francisco Opera

The narrative gaps in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut are hard not to find fault with. In director Olivier Tambosi’s production, however, they can almost feel forgotten as part of its attractive and energised revival at San Francisco Opera. Tambosi gives powerful padding to its themes and an excellent team of singers presented characters of surprisingly impressive dimensionality.

Lianna Haroutounian as Manon and Zhengyi Bai as the Dancing Master
In its four-part episodic story of brisk circumstantial changes, Manon’s desire to romp about riches could easily have the affect of distancing her from the audience’s heart. On the brink of being shuffled into a convent before being swept off her feet by the impassioned student Chevalier des Grieux, to a life of luxury in the clutches of old Geronte di Revoir, Manon falls back again in the embrace of love with des Grieux. In Albanian soprano Lianna Haroutounian’s superbly nuanced performance of the title role, however, Manon’s desire for wealth and her vanity pale significantly against a foreground of disenfranchised and abused women by self-entitled men of which she is the unfortunate figurehead. 

Haroutounian delved deep and soared powerfully with a glistening top range that sung of Manon’s flightiness, desperation and predicament. Manon Lescaut marks Haroutounian’s fourth role debut for San Francisco Opera, one in which her combined conviction and richness of voice cemented her stature on Puccini’s tragically drawn women. At first showing reluctance to look into des Grieux’s eyes, Haroutounian gave Manon a sense of aloofness and reveals her feelings measuredly to go hand in hand with Puccini’s music. Each new episode brings a compelling dramatic turn and Haroutounian emblazoned them all with operatic splendour. Manon’s Act 2 aria reflecting on the cheerful and secluded cottage with des Grieux was a particularly heartfelt reflection and a performance highlight in which she demonstrated extraordinary ability to manoeuvre through core emotional territory with vocal dexterity. But Haroutounian’s best was to come, on the way showing no signs of waning, in the gravity of Act 4’s “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”, where, alone in the desert as des Grieux searches for water, she contemplates her beauty and fate.
Lianna Haroutounian as Manon and Brian Jagde as Des Grieux

In Manon, des Grieux sees more, drawn to her by both her beauty and a heart hidden by sadness and to whom American tenor Brian Jagde gave vocal force of Himalayan magnificence. Manon’s destiny lies hopelessly in the hands of others and while des Grieux presses into her life as a welcome hero, even he cannot alter a course of doom. In Abbé Prévost’s novel of 1731 novel L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, on which the opera is based, des Grieux even precipitates it. 

Forceful without showiness and having the physical presence that matters, Jagde whipped up unstoppable gusto as the valiant young man as emotions cascaded in thoughtfully targeted singing. With a tingling and wowing “Pazzo son!” that closed Act 3, as the captain of the ship sees des Grieux’s grief, Jagde gave substance to a moment in life when things change in a flash and let loose the greatest emotive highlight of opening night.

Philip Skinner as Geronte and
Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut
Once baritone Anthony Clark Evans revved up a low range that sank out of audibility, the full range and muscularity of his instrument was on handsome display as Manon’s chameleon-natured brother, Lescaut. In grand, smouldering bass-baritone form, Philip Skinner added giant sized character to an old ox Geronte, only marginally staving off a heart attack in his lust for Manon. Adler Fellows Christopher Oglesby, Ashley Dixon and Zhengyi Bai acquitted themselves finely with Oglesby bringing youthful swagger to Edmondo and Bai making an especially sumptuous turn as the Dancing Master. It wasn’t a night to revel in for the usually reliable chorus, however, as timings faltered and textures sagged. 

What never seemed to disappoint was former San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti’s guiding hand in bringing much translucency and weight to the score. The warmly applauded intermezzo before Act 3 was a notably splendid affair that elicited reflection on the journey taken and on what would come.

As the production goes, Tambosi ups the frivolity with wit and the emotional barometer with agency as the plot heads towards a tragedy that has little chance of avoidance. In Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s marvellous scenic design, alluding to the story’s second half of the 18th century setting, Act 1 is a lively procession of village activity and Act 2’s stately blue boudoir in Geronte's house in Paris is busier than Bourke Street as all the comings and goings bore the pampered Manon. The gloom that hangs over Act 3’s setting near the harbour in Le Havre reveals the horror and indignity that brands a fallen woman and Act 4 is a heart wrenching end on the sparse set of the Louisiana plains, even if not one of the five librettists credited with the libretto explain how the pair end up there fighting death. 

The narrative nuts and bolts, in the end, are well taken care of by Puccini. While Manon Lescaut doesn’t share the same dramatic mastery that was to come in later works, there are reminders aplenty in its score of the riches these future works harbour. 

Manon Lescaut
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 26th November 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Enchanted Pig arrives in its Australian premiere in a splendidly rendered staging at the Yarra Valley Opera Festival: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight Magazine, 21st October 2019

There’s a lot of singing about love in English composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton’s The Enchanted Pig. Loud and clear, you hear love is a wonder, love is strange, and love is a drug. It can make you happy, a hero and a fool. For a princess in love with a pig who is actually a king under a spell that she sets out to break, it turns out that love, among many things, is a journey of patience, trust and perseverance. And it unfolds with the help of the North Wind, the Moon and the Sun, as well as the Milky Way, as part of a splendidly rendered staging by Gale Edwards in Gertrude Opera’s Australian premiere of the work at the Yarra Valley Opera Festival.

Naomi Flatman, Joshua Oxley, Sheridan Hughes,
Yu Lin and Sam Roberts-Smith 
The Enchanted Pig was first performed in London in 2006 to great success and went on to Broadway in 2011. Dove and Middleton’s two-act work, adapted from a Romanian folk tale with an immediate whiff of Beauty and the Beast about it, is a dense treasure of rolling tunes and spicy lyrics. It can feel in company with the pulsating metre of Sondheim, the lyricism of Porter, a touch of Bernstein and Britten or the pizazz of cabaret, but it also has its own beating heart which, in turn, gives it its own appealing uniqueness as a through-composed work. Only two keyboards, harp, trombone, cello, double bass and percussion are its make-up of instruments, and seven fine musicians its band, but the soundscape feels much broader. On Friday night’s opening under the Festival’s large white tent, conductor Patrick Burns kept the momentum alive, with space made for swatches of shimmering sensitivity.

In Joseph Noonan’s simple, punchy design, three chairs on a checkerboard floor lead to stately double doors surrounded by a tinsel curtain. The vitality, colour and beauty that follow are nothing less than uplifting under Jason Crick’s commanding lighting. Noonan’s layout lends itself superbly to the quick-paced nature of the work, with Edwards’ variety act-like moments keeping the action flowing with scenes that explode onto the stage and evaporate in a flash.

Naomi Flatman as Flora and Sam Roberts-Smith as the Pig
Oscar-winning costume designer Tim Chappel brings a wild and witty mix to the stage, as if to say what one wears can be as diverse in style as how love can be defined. From gladiatorial to medieval, fantastical and modern, Chappel’s costumes are pivotal to the production’s seduction and have such vivid identities that you might believe their wearers had fallen under their spell. And it seemed so with performances that were excellent across the board. Full credit to the ensemble cast of 16 who never miss a beat and who take on multiple roles, including as a chorus of lab-coated scientists whose main purpose is to put love under the microscope.

Resonant, muscular in voice and often accompanied with an air of unflattering brass, baritone Sam Roberts-Smith is something of a cross between gladiator and subject of bondage as the Pig by day, and a figure of dashing masculinity by night. He may have the title role but vocal parts are spread generously across the cast. Mezzo-soprano Naomi Flatman is outstanding as the besotted Flora, with vocal colours aplenty and convincing in making palpable the character’s determination and resilience. Flora’s loving sentiments weren’t instantaneous, having seen sisters Mab and Dot – Sheridan Hughes and Yu Lin do a fine job in hamming it up as princesses – in their happy unions with the King of the West (Joshua Oxley) and the King of the East (Harry Grigg). Grigg makes a particularly good impression, his radiant tenor beautifying his aria as the Pierrot-like guiding Moon, while Oxley doubles as a Eurotrash attired Sun in a hilarious hip-swinging encounter.

Evil gets whipped up by the rich and ripe voiced Rose Nolan as the Old Woman who also doubles as Mrs North Wind. Zoe Drummond, as her vixen-like daughter, Adelaide, launches into one of many performance highlights with a bridezilla outburst in front of her wedding caterers, her soprano assured, athletic and penetrating. As Flora’s father, Markus Matheis is a magnetic King Hildebrand, giving pliable expression in both physical and vocal form, carried through in his duet as Mr North Wind with Nolan’s Mrs North in a brilliant, comic description of love. And Alexandra Amerides is quite literally a pedestal of support as The Book of Fate, who seals Flora and her sister’s future after they enter a room forbidden by their father.

The cast of The Enchanted Pig
Golden casting choices, strong ensemble singing, costumes and design that dazzle and charm, with a small but impactful orchestra setting the course – Artistic Director Linda Thompson really does demonstrate how it’s possible to be world class while working on a shoestring. It’s a shoestring with unbreakable threads of talent, tenacity and grit, with some inexpensive tinsel spun in for good measure. Still, you can’t help feeling disheartened that performing arts companies such as these are crying out for government funding with arts coverage in mainstream media diminishing at the same time.

Take someone you love to see The Enchanted Pig. Its spirit and intensity will reverberate long after the joyous ending and it’s less than an hour’s drive to the enchanting Yarra Valley for added special effect. While you’re deciding, there’s a re-envisioned production of Verdi’s Macbeth by award-winning director Luke Leonard to consider as well and, extending the timeline further back, another Gale Edwards production in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea.

The Enchanted Pig
Gertrude Opera, Yarra Valley Opera Festival
Olinda Yarra Estate
Until 27th October 2019

Production Photos: Lyz Turner-Clark

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A little moral and endearing magic in the world premiere of Victorian Opera’s The Selfish Giant

In a simple tale with a simple message, theatrically drawn with affecting heart, youthful life and a touch of wit, Victorian Opera’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant made it’s world premiere at Albert Park’s Gasworks Theatre this week. The latest in years of new works commissioned by this energetic and inclusive company, The Selfish Giant adds a little moral and endearing magic to the long list.

Stephen Marsh as The Giant and youth chorus, Victorian Opera
Most remarkably, the compact 70-minute work highlights the talents of, among many, two young artists in composer Simon Bruckard and librettist Emma Muir-Smith. Indications are that they have a bright future in musical storytelling. Bruckard’s music is variegated with aplomb and features some excellent pounding rhythms, dissonant ambience and pensive lulling passages. It’s achieved through a small ensemble of nine players and a solid balance of instruments including the unblemished work of Peter Clark on violin, Julie Raines on harp, Jasper Ly on oboe/cor anglais and Phillipa Safey on piano. Taking ownership of his composition, Bruckard conducts with an instinctively good sense of tempo and attentiveness to his team.

Muir-Smith’s libretto feels natural and direct. It also eschews the religious connection to the Christ Child in its abridged version of Wilde’s tale, one which reads much like a parable and part of a collection of children’s stories first published in 1888 as The Happy Prince and Other Stories.

In the title role, top-hatted and distinguished, the attractive, brooding and roasty baritone that Stephen Marsh characteristically exhibits is a perfect match for The Giant whose gloomy demeanour is lifted when he learns that sharing his garden gives him happiness. Bruckard has written with a deep sensitivity for The Giant and Marsh makes a sturdy and memorable portrayal of a solitary figure who comes to understand the consequences of his actions. Great at gruffness and a joy to watch skipping with the children (to a near heart-attack), Marsh reveals the gentle giant within in a warmly resonant and touching transformation. Next Wednesday, Marsh joins the finalists of the Herald Sun Aria in partnership with Melbourne Opera and, without a doubt, he has won a few more fans.

Noah Ryland as Wind, Michael Dimovski as Snow,
Olivia Federow-Yemm as Winter and Darcy Carroll as Frost
After the opening introspective bars, Spring (Saffrey Brown) and her Fairies (Stephanie Ciantar and Chloe Maree Harris) bring sweet melody and beautifully harmonised singing to The Giant’s garden.
It’s the only piece that lingers and repeats for a tad too long, giving way to the children who appear with gusto to play in the garden. The almost 30-strong members of the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) and youth opera artists are an instant delight. In their broad-checked uniforms, their vibrant singing and spirited but never over-acted acting is praiseworthy. So too is Cameron Menzies’ amply extracted and searching direction together with Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s nimble choreography. 

Taking over The Giant’s garden, Olivia Federow-Yemm’s Winter is a confident and classy horned beauty with a tendency to lash out and a fine mezzo-soprano with breadth and agility. Arriving as a noisy trio of jovial vagabonds, Michael Dimovski, Noah Ryland and Darcy Carroll are a brilliantly comic and musical threesome as they set up camp in the garden as Snow, Wind and Frost respectively. But everyone glows on stage.

And it also looks a treat in its quirky use of perspective with so much wondrous dimensionality and colour-mood as part of James Browne’s expressionist design and Eduard Inglés’ lighting. The Giant’s little cottage and armchair are a particularly evocative rendering of scale. The setting also comes with a choreographed touch as well with the chorus of children adding botanical life with painted umbrellas and icicle sharpness with cut-outs to the picture. 

But the one thing noticeably lacking in a work that Oscar Wilde wrote for children and that Victorian Opera have staged with  panache and youth was a young audience to go with it. With four sold out shows in the 200-seat theatre, it’s not only a sign that The Selfish Giant sells, but we shouldn’t be seeing the last of him.

The Selfish Giant 
Victorian Opera
Gasworks Theatre, Albert Park 
Until 19th October 2019

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Sunday, October 13, 2019

An American post -revolutionary Marriage of Figaro full of vibrancy and colour opens at San Francisco Opera

When San Francisco Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro opened on Friday night, you couldn’t help but notice how colour impacted its four-acts over three hours of Mozart’s intoxicating music. With it, Canadian director Michael Cavanagh takes his audience on a comic rollercoaster ride in a period that reflects the time of the opera’s late 18th century premiere in 1786 - to “the heart of a post-revolutionary America” as the program notes indicate.

Serena Malfi as Cherubino, Michael Sumuel as Figaro,
and Jeanine De Bique as Susanna
When the curtain goes up, you’re made to feel right at home amongst the order and symmetry of Count Almaviva’s Jeffersonian-styled mansion but the elegance and beauty captured by its architecture are anything but reflected in either its rooms or the Count’s trying day and virtually everyone else’s for that matter. And as Cavanagh entertainingly untwists it’s intriguingly twisted plot in a vibrantly sung staging fizzing with chemistry, accidental or not, there’s a fabulously farcical play with colour in the mix too. Skin colour. And it gets tricky indeed.

Of course, there’s so much to brush aside in Mozart and Da Ponte’s sublime and intelligently conceived work as part of theatre’s suspension of disbelief. Should we also be sceptical of the so-called droit du seigneur, or a lord’s right to bed a female subordinate on her wedding night? Or believe that a servant girl had the education to dictate her lady’s letter? Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte give the servant class clout in a hard-fought battle with the aristocracy. Men in authority making sexual advances on women under their authority has a ring of contemporary relevance too. But all men need to be thwarted, including the young page Cherubino whose sexual appetite is inexhaustible and who Serena Malfi - one of four principals in house debuts - does a smashing good turn in the trouser role. Mozart makes you notice.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and
Jeanine De Bique as Susanna
So, are we meant not to notice that black singers Michael Sumuel and Jeanine De Bique, the pair marvellously rubbing their electric charms together, are cast as household servants Figaro and his sweetheart Susanna? It certainly paints a picture of class and colour distinction in a time when America was enmeshed with slavery. On the other hand, their eavesdropping servant comrades, a sharp singing lot, are pretty much white. And then there’s the Countess, elevated affectingly in a sensational company debut by plush soprano Nicole Heaston, who is black but who came into the role after white Irish soprano Jennifer Davis’ withdrawal.

If it seems to look confusing, the dividends come later when Susanna and the Countess trade identities to catch the Count out who, as a vexed and portly white man holding onto privilege, is given imposingly fortified baritone sturdiness from Hungarian Levente Molnár. Nothing, however, compares with the laughs that erupted when Marcellina, a hearty voiced Catherine Cook, and Don Basilio, an impressively resonant Greg Fedderly, discover that Figaro is their lost son, an impossible genetic outcome of black born from white. Colour, it turns out, plays a whopping big part in this American Figaro.

Especially so did palpable teamwork in acting and singing which ensured the briskness and intent of the drama was conveyed amply. Conductor Henrik Nánási led a sensitively drawn picture of sound below, somewhat overly guarded in the first act but lifting enormous expression from the oft-fleeting moods thereon.

As detailed as the intricate architectural drawings that screen the production, Sumuel sang with deeply crafted expressivity and authoritative vocal heft as the can-figure-it-out Figaro. As a cheeky Susanna, early in the piece De Bique occasionally lost projection in the bottom end of her sparkling soprano but her agile top range never faltered. As the Count, baritone Molnár’s comic chops stretched far, that is, until he falls to his knees in a touching gesture of shame before the wife he had betrayed. All one’s attention on Cherubino was easily given both because of Malfi’s smug and adolescent male on a randy rampage and her warm and mellifluous mezzo-soprano.

Nicole Heaston as the Countess and Serena Malfi as Cherubino
In what is a strong cast, as the Countess, Heaston gets extra praise for her performance, one that requires her character to communicate the widest range of emotion and to which she did with poise and refined vocal beauty. Heaston’s top notes effortlessly sailed over the orchestra but the power that she communicated in fragile pianissimo notes was unequivocal gold in the Countess’ Act 3 aria of loss, “Dove sono i bei momenti” (“Where are they, the beautiful moments”).

The creative juices of Erhard Rom (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes) and Jane Cox (lighting) combine in a delicious blend of adaptable spaces, quirkinesses and subtlety. Cavanagh, in all the deftly directed comic footwork he creates, couldn’t have asked for a more evocative scenographic picture. Neither could he have asked for a more debatable, precariously portrayed and, when the curtain comes down, a comically winning result. Perhaps, in no small part, it’s Mozart’s music - his arias, duets and all the up to his equally balanced octets, that irons out the issues for us. The question remains, how do you want to cast this in the future?

The Marriage of Figaro
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 1st November, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Waiting for the penny to drop in Opera Australia's haunting Ghost Sonata from Opera Australia: Herald Sun Review

Published in Herald Sun Melbourne online 26th September, 2019

Based on August Strindberg’s 1907 play and set to music by Aribert Reimann, Ghost Sonata is the type of work that extends the perimeters of what opera might be expected to be. Reimann’s 1984 chamber opera is a challenging 90-minute soundscape to reside in but it has a highly intellectualised approach in Opera Australia’s new production.
Shanul Sharma as The Student, Danita Weatherstone as The Young Woman
and Virgillio Marino as Johansson 

Within its festering mood is a story that spotlights the secrets and lies one harbours, to the extreme of creating a persona perceived as someone untrue to self. And what might be better, to hide behind lies for as long as we can or accept our lies and wither away? There doesn’t seem a way out.

It’s uncertain who is alive or dead in this psychological matrix as the characters fatefully come together for ‘The Ghost Supper’ where all is revealed. When they do, the fractured nature of the plot and its distinctive piercing shards of music seem to coalesce and offer a way forward.

A large angled mirror above the stage reflects the action in a way that creates two realities and is lowered after truths are revealed in Emma Kingsbury’s clever design. Ample opportunity is given to ponder over the work’s surrealism as part of Greg Eldridge’s haunting direction and manic blend of seemingly random vocal lines.
Richard Anderson as The Old Man, Dominica Matthews as The Mummy
 and John Longmuir as The Colonel

There’s The Student who wants to know what is wanted of him, sung with an excellently sharpened and tensile tenor by Shanul Sharma. Powerful bass Richard Anderson is persuasive in rendering the brusque and scheming nature of The Old Man and John Longmuir slingshots an impressive wiry tenor as The Colonel who’s not the noble he pretends to be.

Mezzo Dominica Matthews is a spectral charmer as The Mummy, a squawking pitiful figure who thinks she’s a parrot, and Danita Weatherstone is radiant as The Young Woman. Other roles are firmly delivered while Warwick Stengårds shapes precision and impetus in the score.

In a work bereft of melody, you might be waiting for the penny to drop. Perhaps it won’t but in giving something of oneself, its secrets just might be revealed.

Ghost Sonata
Opera Australia
The Coopers Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre
Until September 29

3.5 stars

Production Photos: Georges Antoni 

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