Saturday, January 26, 2019

A welcome new Wozzeck for Opera Australia opens in a showering extravaganza in Sydney

A new Opera Australia production of Austrian composer Alban Berg’s harrowing psychological opera, Wozzeck, opened on Friday night at the Sydney Opera House. It’s a feast of extraordinary artistic stimulation of the highest level in a new, grandly signed William Kentridge production and a 90-minute showering extravaganza driven by an intensely passionate cast. 

John Longmuir as The Captain, Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck
 and Richard Anderson as The Doctor
Composed between 1914 and 1922 within which Europe was in the throes of being ravaged by World War I, Wozzeck was the opera Berg had to write. It was his first, premiering in 1925, and reflects his own affecting experience of war. It’s based, nonetheless, on the unfinished 27-episode play Woyzeck of 1837 by German playwright Georg Büchner. Themes of militarism, bastardisation and sadistic power play are the ingredients with which Berg forged 15 compact scenes that are divided equally across 3 continuous acts. 

A poor soldier of low rank who has witnessed the horrors on the field, Wozzeck is mocked by his superiors, cheated on by his lover (mother of his bastard child) and reduced to a redundant casualty of circumstance. As a mental breakdown unfurls, your heart goes out to him but sympathy is subsequently drained when, in a preconceived act of revenge, he murders his lover, Marie. In a broader view, in tandem with the devastation of war comes the breakdown of morals.

But how do you like your Wozzeck served? The last production mounted by Opera Australia premiered in 1999 when the imaginative mind of director Barrie Kosky created a spare, intensely expressionistic and intimately focused interpretation that elevated the psychological aspect. Kentridge’s lens is wider, his version less personalised, creating a contextualisation of Wozzeck’s crisis with a collage-like bombardment of film and projected images both photographic and sketched. The stage is made up of an intricate jumble of seemingly piled up bric-a-brac around impressions of a blown out home nestled upon it. And not a foot goes wrong when precariously steep duckboard walkways are traversed. 

Lorina Gore as Marie and Michael Honeyman as Wozzeck 
The creative team - designer Sabine Theunissen, costumes Greta Goiris, lighting Urs Schönebaum and projections Catherine Meyburgh - have collaborated to produce a highly fluid and technically accomplished art installation of sorts. Each scene is segued superbly. Decapitated heads, animated mechanical figures, unidentifiable faces in gas masks, a passing zeppelin and an enormous silhouetted crowd are some of the devices used to feel what Wozzeck sees within an array of spaces that balloon and contract and light up in explosive flashes. 

It’s a busy visual fare that might help to assuage a more melody-loving ear. But conductor Andrea Molino matches Kentridge’s gestures head on with Berg’s angular, atonal musical landscape as he sculpts an ever-present tension over the rises, falls and tumbles in the score. Between such strong, weighty components of visuals and music, the demands on the singers is enormous. It struck me whether singing in English rather than German was considered - surtitles would be one less area of the stage to look at, giving greater connection to the cast.

The first scene opens with gusto. Catching the eye and slicing the air in remarkable outbursts of superciliousness as the Captain, tenor John Longmuir took the role by the horns, gave it an electrifying shake and showcased the formidable vocal dexterity he possesses. 

John Daszak as The Drum-Major and Lorina Gore as Marie
After pairing in Opera Australia’s 2018 Green Room Award-winning production of King Roger - a similarly psychologically focused drama from composer Karol Szymanowski - baritone Michael Honeyman and soprano Lorina Gore brought conviction as Wozzeck and Marie. Stooped under a cloud of humiliation, Honeyman built his performance impeccably as the voice increasingly burned with half-declaimed text that was delivered in deeply furrowed lines. Gore effortlessly sailed to glassy penetrating highs as a pitiable, battling Marie. 

John Daszak, who performed in the production's premiere at the Salzburg Festival last year, spread his manhood wide as the pompous Drum Major with his full and roaring tenor. Oily bass Richard Anderson’s freaky Doctor, fine-grained tenor Virgilio Marino’s genial Andres and Dominica Matthews’ rough and ready Margret all made a good impression. And though his appearance is brief as the Madman, it was wonderful to see young tenor Shanul Sharma fit in among esteemed company. 

In the end, you could say Wozzeck gets his just desserts. Punished not by man, Wozzeck drowns in the nearby lake. Left behind is a parent-less child, a little puppet in a grotesque face-mask, his peers unfeeling and distant. Berg and Kentridge leave you with the sense that things are not going to easily change. 

Opera Australia 
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 
Until 15th February, 2019

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Music, dance and design fuse in surrealistic strength for the U.S premiere of The Black Cat at Long Beach Opera

In American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 dark tale, The Black Cat, the insidious and debilitating affects of alcoholism are seen through the horrors of violence and murder. Zooming in on domestic homicide, guilt becomes its by-product and, harbouring the secret of the act, its pain - more than enough ingredients for chilling operatic fodder. Potently, with the shocking statistics that continue to be ascribed to the crime, the work resonates hugely in our not so rosy domestic world where love is automatically presumed to be safe.

Keith Ian Polakoff, Jean-Guillaume Weis and Sylvia Camarda 
Poe’s short story has seen various adaptations but its operatic form arrived with a 2012 world premiere that combined English songwriter David Sylvian's songs and arias from J.S. Bach's cantatas in a collaboration with Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra and conductor Martin Haselböck at Théâtre National du Luxembourg in Belgium.

It took California’s intrepid Long Beach Opera to give The Black Cat its U.S. premiere, opening on 19th January and utilising director Frank Hoffmann’s original production with Virgil Widrich’s design concept. Realised in a palpably collaborative fashion, the experience stealthily unfolds in a surrealistic, trance-like state. Two dancers, an actor and a tenor entwined their talents marvellously to mine its pathos, revulsion and edgy, meditative gloomy beauty. 

It was intended to be performed by all of the original performers with English tenor Nicholas Mulroy as both singer and actor in the role of the nameless man who finds himself on death row after being convicted of his wife’s murder. But Mulroy’s inability to enter the U.S. due to the government’s current administrative shutdown threw a spanner in the works. With just 5 days notice to prepare, American tenor Aaron Sheehan stepped in, sang alongside the small chamber orchestra of 7 musicians and did a sterling job in giving toasty-warm voice, purposefully driven text and agile technique as assistant director Jacques Schiltz acted the part with complete understanding.

Jean-Guillaume Weis and Aaron Sheehan
Dancers Sylvia Camarda and Jean-Guillaume Weis provided compelling focus to flashbacks of the condemned man’s circumstances as his reason is poisoned and delirium takes effect. From a quaint but ominous commedia dell’arte-like sketch as the wife prepares a romantic dinner for her husband, the scene quickly deteriorates into an alcoholic’s blurred imaginations. Weis’ drunken movements were brilliantly executed, as were Camarda’s lithe and generously expressed performance. Suspicion, anger and blame are invited in with the presence and actions of the owner’s pet black cat Pluto. At times, both man and woman appear to morph as cat which adds to the psychedelic sense that Sylvian’s smokey music evokes.

It’s almost crazy, but unsettling and jolting, how the mix of J.S. Bach’s live music and Sylvian's recorded songs are spliced, delineated and layered, then worm their way into a unimaginable whole in a story both utterly mad and tragically plausible. Though alternating from one to the other, the purity of classical and modern genres is occasionally eschewed, resulting in a soundscape that unites them as well as emphasise extremes. Similarly, storytelling via Bach’s translated German arias and Sylvian’s songs is obliquely suggestive, but gestured powerfully through dance. 

Jean-Guillaume Weis and Sylvia Camarda
Virgil Widrich’s stage design evokes a vividly coloured surrealistic cinematic aesthetic. The effect created feels as superbly visionary as Salvador Dali and Bunuel’s 1929 silent short film, Un Chien Andalou, in which the violent disputes between a man and a woman are likewise witnessed. Even the musicians become part of the work as they enter the stage to take their places, dressed in coats and hats in a Magritte-like parade and return to the stage towards the end as detectives when the man is being interviewed. 

Three-metre high digital screens - three of them - form the backdrop on which Widrich’s visuals and projections indicate settings that move from prison cell to house, garden and back. Sin in God's presence and time for repentance seem omnipresent with the use of a crucifix and a pendulum wall clock. The tick-tock of the clock floats on the music as the pendulum swings, as does the sound of water droplets that conjure the damp harshness of the cell. Every effort to fuse music, design and dance appears to have been made that contributed hugely to the show’s seductive success. 

Indications are that the work will maintain the separate casting of actor and singer. I’d prefer not. To hear Bach’s arias sung with depth of emotion from the actor himself who plays the condemned man as he blends with the danced flashbacks would integrate the piece even further.

The Black Cat
Long Beach Opera
The Beverly O’Neill Theatre
Until 20th January, 2019

Production Photos: Keith Ian Polakoff

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Decades on, Graeme Murphy's Turandot for Opera Australia continues to live with persuasive dynamism

Hoping to solve three riddles that would give them the right to marry a notoriously ice-hearted but beautiful princess, umpteen princes have failed and lost their heads even before the curtain goes up on Puccini’s final opera, Turandot. It would seem that Opera Australia’s near 30 year-old production from director and choreographer Graeme Murphy has gone through as many revivals. I thought I’d had enough of it but it’s still living on healthily with a wealth of attributes to treat thousands of newcomers who’ll walk away with the memory of its smartly conceived, vividly exotic and sometimes playful spectacle. 

Graeme Macfarlane as the Emperor
and Amber Wagner as Turandot 
Glowingly obvious is the deep respect revival director Kim Walker shows for Murphy’s original and masterful touch. What better way to iron out the story’s peculiarities and far-fetched nature than to bind it with an enigmatic and stylistic interpretation that eschews realism. Every scene bristles with persuasive dynamism in which nothing is left to chance. John Drummond Montgomery’s lighting adds ongoing intrigue to Kristian Fredrikson's sets that rely heavily on decorative motifs and an array of billowing robes as part of an inventive take on ancient Chinese class-divided costumes. Fantasy is elevated to such gorgeously crafted and oblique picture-book detail that trying to find faults hinting on cultural misappropriation is unproductive. 

Long before the titular character sings a note, a strong, magnetic chorus essentially carries the drama forward and the huge contingent of mandarins, dignitaries and commoners of the Opera Australia Chorus ticked every box of excellence from the start. Moving en masse in waves and surges around ribbons of blood, waving banners, threatening swords and towering figures of rule, the singing was richly textured, strong and lucent, both on and off stage. A snaking chorus of children, likewise, delighted the eyes and ears. 

Imperial ministers Ping, Pang and Pong (Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir) melded quirky moves in large scrolls with earnest warnings to the latest besotted suitor, Calàf, and musings on nothing more than a life in nature far-removed from Beijing’s quandary and its sacred books. Fortunately, they’re an entertaining trio who bounced their gravelly vocals off each other and joined splendidly in rhythmic unison. 

Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir
as Ping, Pang and Pong
Spanish tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi strikes the gong to signify his determination to solve the riddles as a suitably valiant Calàf . Gorrotxategi exhibited burning passion with charismatic tone on opening night but I got the feeling there was more in the tank to give. With no time to waste in Act 3’s popular but brief header, “Nessun dorma!”, Gorrotxategi’s rendition was cleanly and forwardly sung, though seemingly without taking absolute ownership of time and place. 

Soprano Mariana Hong’s expressive vocal weight and sympathetically drawn character gave pitiful truthfulness to the slave girl Liù all the way through to the gripping tragic ending that befalls her. As her blind master and Calàf ’s father Timur, Richard Anderson convincingly carried the burden of old age and fading hope with a bass of grainy, sinuous appeal. Giving authoritative voice to a small role, Andrew Moran glided about in his element as a roll-about Mandarin but Graeme Macfarlane lacked projection from his lofty position at the rear of the stage as the Emperor Altoum.

When Princess Turandot finally shows up to sing midway through Act 2, American soprano Amber Wagner powered the title role on opening night with all manner of sensational vocal beauty. Like a spurned sorceress, Wagner unleashed the pent up resentment Turandot has for any man who tries to win her affection. Top to bottom, Wagner preyed on the music, singing out with ferocious might, penetrating daggers and condescending tone. “No man will ever own me”, Wagner meaningfully proclaims and, though the sentiment is short-lived, with those intensely emoted notes she gave fleeting hope to all women. 

Amber Wagner as Turandot and Andeka Gorrotxategi as Calàf 
When Wagner sings, you take notice, just as you would’ve in Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle of 2016 when she appeared as Sieglinde. That voluptuous sound Wagner can muster needs a companion but the duets she shares with Gorrotxategi often left the tenor in the shade. And, for the tricky ending that Puccini never lived to compose conclusively? Wagner’s nuanced treatment of the abrupt change of heart that Turandot has when she melts into love with Calàf took the finale winningly over the line as the two walk into the distance. 

All the characteristic momentum, the crests and troughs and delicately threaded passages came together emphatically under conductor Christian Badea. Act 1 could benefit from reining in the opening cracking pace, as would cutting out the interval between the first and second act. The Opera Australia Orchestra played superbly with special mention to the brass players who brought shuddering grandeur to the recurring  ceremonial brass exhalations. 

It may not be long away but regardless when the national company decide to retire this 1990 production, the strength of Murphy’s concept will resonate for decades to come for those fortunate enough to see and feel its energy. 

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 30th March, 2018

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Sydney Chamber Opera's La Passion de Simone sheds its light as a dedication to a martyr at Sydney Festival

Jane Sheldon as narrator/commentator
Simone Weil, subject of Sydney Chamber Opera’s Australian premiere of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone as part of Sydney Festival, was a smart young cookie. One of the 20th-century’s most practice-oriented French intellectuals, she pipped another more recognisable Simone, Simone de Beauvoir, at the post in graduating top of her class at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. 

Displaying unstoppable commitment, Weil’s life was richly invested in purpose, though short-lived. At age 34, in 1943, Weil passed away in London while determinedly embarking on a hunger strike, after contracting tuberculosis, in protest against the mistreatment of her fellow people in Nazi-occupied France. Philosopher, political activist and pacifist, Weil vigorously defended the working class and disadvantaged in her quest to improve social conditions. Once her story becomes known, it etches itself permanently, making it rather unsurprising that it was immortalised in music and text as music theatre. It took two prominent female artists to give it form.

But Saariaho and her librettist Amin Maalouf’s 75-minute work is not an opera. More oratorio and meditative in style, during which Weil is seemingly elevated to martyrdom, its inspiration comes from the medieval tradition of the passion play. Sung and spoken in French and portrayed in 15 “stations” via narrator/commentator in just one solo role, a strong sense of Weil’s ideas is conveyed in various moments of her life without being directly episodic. 

Soprano Jane Sheldon is outstanding in the role as she projects her clear, penetrating and radiant sound with ethereal beauty from the large, spare stage area. Sheldon demonstrated her remarkable agility, technique and stamina in last year’s libretto-less work that gave voice to trauma in composer Damien Ricketson and director Adena Jacobs’ The Howling Girls. Here, Sheldon is again perfectly suited to the high demands with much of the vocal writing residing in the upper range. Sheldon gives it an unswerving and stunning polished-glass finish. 

Jane Sheldon as narrator/commentator
Around Sheldon, Saariaho’s inventive music creates an aura of eeriness and tension as part of a sound field that predominantly beats and vibrates in the low-lying scale. The overall musical tone evokes a generous mysticism, however, the libretto’s structural rigidity and peppered quotations become tedious. The creative team have the job to pick up what feels arid in the score. Directed by Imara Savage with simplicity to seemingly highlight Weil’s unshakable resolve, set and costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby, lighting designer Alexander Berlage and video artist Mike Daly meet the challenge with an effectively hypnotic, fused, monochromatic design. 

A chorus of four voices from The Song Company have little to give to the commentary but resonate effectively as one alongside the substantial 19-piece chamber orchestra in which all instrument sections are represented. On opening night, the musicianship was robust and pure as conductor Jack Symonds provided consistent command at the helm.

Silent pauses are golden, scale is distorted and a relentless shower pours over an indomitable woman appearing on a super-sized screen. All the while, Sheldon stands before her, transfixed and in communion with her ‘sister’ to the point of convulsing in sympathy with this woman’s selfless suffering - a powerful image and interpretation of both adoration and service of compassion. 

There is so much to be enjoyed in the production but, seductive as it is visually and musically, in the end the work’s abstract nature lingers for too long, leaving a sense that its ultra-intellectual writing runs counter to what is most compelling about a woman who championed the disadvantaged. 

La Passion de Simone 
Sydney Chamber Opera 
Bay 17, Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh
Until 11th January, 2019

Production Photos: Victor Frankowski

Monday, January 7, 2019

Meeting Mozart in a most entertainingly acrobatic way with Circa's Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus: Herald Sun Review

Published online in Melbourne's Herald Sun on Thursday, 3rd January and in print Friday, 4th January, 2019

Created by Yaron Lifschitz and Benjamin Knapton, Brisbane-based Circa’s Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus celebrates a little party pantomime in the most entertainingly acrobatic way. The result is a divinely engrossing and intelligently devised one-hour show accompanied by a broad selection of Mozart’s melodic music.

Paul O'Keefe as Mozart in Wolfgang's Magical Musical Circus
Alone in her black and white furnished home, a young woman’s birthday is transformed into a magical journey with Mozart as she plays a record of his music. An initial hint of melancholia on her special day is quickly cured by Mozart’s larger-than-life entrance from her fridge. The wigged genius is cheeky, charismatic and boundlessly energetic. What is perceived to be given to her is the power of exuberant magic that uplifts her mood and releases her potential. In doing so, a seesawing game in the spotlight ensues in which a sweet equality between them is achieved.

Accordion player Gareth Chin, Paul O'Keefe and Kathryn O'Keefe make cup the cast of WolfgangÕs Magical Musical Circus. Picture: Justin Kennedy
Catapulting their quaint and heartwarming story into the audience’s hearts, husband and wife team Paul and Kathryn O’Keeffe perform with near-disbelieving feats of physical antics and slapstick comical brilliance. Metronome precision, incredible strength and concentration disguised by endearingly mimed facial expressions compliment their indelible chemistry.

The partying duo effortlessly concoct 101 ways to use a chair and ride a bicycle with gasp-inducing contortionist wonder. Kathryn easily carries the lithe and nimble music master’s weight like a feather. For a moment, Mozart disappears as one side of the record ends, returns in his underwear as the record is turned over, then amazes while dressing to hilarious cycling gymnastics. And to the tune of the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute, a breathtaking pièce de résistance takes height and balance to seemingly impossible limits. Mozart’s flamboyance is eternally on show.

In the background, accordionist Gareth Chin is woven into every moment, like the birthday girl, to support and upstage the composer. But what never is in doubt is how his music has the ability to transform one’s state.

Take the kids, take someone else’s or unashamedly take yourself and giggle googly eyed along with them all for lashings of Mozart contagious joy!

Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus
Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 12th January

4.5 stars

Production Photo: Dylan Evans