Saturday, April 20, 2019

A director's fresh mark and the shocking tragedy of Madama Butterfly made powerful at Opera San José

Twenty-something times seen or more, there’s still a limitless amount to say about Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s ever-popular opera that premiered in 1904. In a revival production from Opera San José that opened in 2014, director Brad Dalton allows it to speak with a good degree of freshness with conductor Joseph Marcheso shaping its music with billowing momentum from an orchestra expertly in line.

Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San and Opera San José Chorus
The buzzing of mosquitos depicted by the opening strings around Cio-Cio-San’s (Butterfly’s) little hillside home in Nagasaki, the boom of the port’s cannon signalling the arrival of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the harbour and the delicate, breezy air that blows in the wordless “Humming Chorus" as Cio-Cio-San waits for her husband to climb the hill - not only in it’s capacity to wring out emotional energy, so much more is painted in music to be relished.

Layered over this, director Brad Dalton hints to us that Cio-Cio-San, is not alone in her abandonment and that many a young female may suffer the same tragedy she does when she falls for the U.S. Naval Lieutenant B.J. Pinkerton. Cio-Cio-San’s happiness turned to grief is all the more painful and disturbing because Dalton, with a methodically detailed eye, zooms in on Cio-Cio-San’s naivety and resolve as well as Pinkerton’s cultural clumsiness and blatant insensitivity.

When the curtain goes up, four naval officers give an American salute in front of the red and white stripes that appear to signify allegiance to country over the women they take as toys. One of them breaks off and joins his Japanese plaything but Pinkerton can’t help himself from making cheap advances on her, the morning he is to wed Cio-Cio-San. It’s a stinging start that complements the ambiguous mood Puccini writes for Cio-Cio-San’s entrance when she shares her joy, “I am the happiest girl in Japan!” to music that is dolefully coloured.

Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San and
Renée Rapier as Suzuki
Despite the vividly drawn individual characters, Act 1 had its issues. In the title role soprano Maria Natale initially wasn’t the 15 year-old Cio-Cio-San I had hoped to meet. Much of the young geisha’s coyness was overplayed along with movements that looked awkwardly choreographed. Cio-Cio-San’s amorous pairing with Derek Taylor’s Pinkerton, the picture of a man's man, also appeared unconvincing. But 3 years later, when aged 18 as she waits in hope for Pinkerton’s return, Natale gave her everything you could wish for in an Act 2 and 3 of soaring beauty and diving grief. And the tears rolled on cue! Natale impressed immensely in Act 2’s “Un bel dì vedremo” ("One fine day we shall see") - another poignant Puccini moment with the tone of pathos in music sung with radiant hope - her vocal agility in full flight with emotional expression that welled with naturalness from within. And the more distant she appeared as hope was finally fading, the more you sensed that Natale was barrelling towards a kind of ‘mad scene’ that culminated in a riveting and horrifyingly tense final aria she plunged into with compelling power, “Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!” ("You? You? My little god!"), as Cio-Cio-San bids farewell to her young boy. 

Taylor’s smug and cocky depiction of Pinkerton had desired impact, his tenor’s burnished tone, resonance and projection delivered with overall attractiveness. Transitions into his upper register occasionally lacked smoothness but, from the centre down to the lower voice, the confidence and form were commanding (Dane Suarez opened the season and alternates in the role). Renée Rapier was particularly impressive in dark mezzo lushness as Cio-Cio-San’s loyal housemaid Suzuki and sharing her brief sense of optimism with Cio-Cio-San in a tender, sisterly and heavenly "Flower Duet". 

Both reasonable and resigned as the US Consul Sharpless, baritone Trevor Neal stood firmly anchored in voice with smouldering warmth of tone. Neal brought out Sharpless’ reading of the letter from Pinkerton in an Act 2 highlight with a robust show of compassion as Cio-Cio-San blindly believes she will be re-united in marital harmony. But even that had its limits as his pent-up frustration with Pinkerton leads him to lunge at and grab Cio-Cio-San in a last attempt to make her understand the truth.

Trevor Neal as Sharpless, Renée Rapier as Suzuki
and Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San 

Supporting roles were generously filled with Mason Gates making a strong impression as the slimy marriage broker Goro, Philip Skinner a storming Satan-like figure as Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, the Bonze, and Ben Brady as the wealthy and patient Prince Yamadori. Katherine Sanford, as Pinkerton’s American wife Kate, exuded grace and warmth of voice and demeanour in the uncomfortable circumstance of one woman pledging to raise another’s child.

Set designer Kent Dorsey infuses the three-act singular fluidly realised early 20th century setting with deft economy and ambience as well as engaging effects that capture the seasons under Pamila Z. Gray’s well-balanced lighting. A gently raked shiny black central platform defines the dwelling area and leads to a spread of steps backed by a sliding black wall. Behind, a variety of effects are created that offer subtle and distinctive ways to demarcate time. Paper screens drop sparingly, three floor lanterns sit either side of the platform, and a few simple furnishings indicate the little alterations Cio-Cio-San makes as an American’s wife that include Act 2’s shrine to her absent husband and a Buddhist shrine in front of which Suzuki worships. Julie Engelbrecht’s costumes do colourful justice to the everyday and ceremonial robes of Japanese tradition and the tailored class of Western presence, together with handsome royal blue naval uniforms. 

And wearing the uniform of his father as  Dolore, young Ezra Kramer (Atom Young Maguire alternates) couldn’t hold back audience applause and tears in the final shocking moment Dalton constructs in which the young Dolore plays with his model ship centre of fore-stage as his mother takes her life behind him. What comes next will stain his innocence for life. And for those who might be tired of the opera’s popularity and frequency, it makes an eternally affecting and essential piece of dramatic theatre no end of freshness, it seems, can be given to. 

Madama Butterfly
Opera San José
California Theatre
Until 28th April, 2019

Production Photos: courtesy of Opera San José

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Handel's Saul resonates resplendently as pages turn effortlessly in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale’s concert performance in San Francisco

Need a new challenge? Imagine ticking off at the theatre or concert hall at least half of George Frideric Handel’s staggering output of more than 70 musical dramas he composed in the decades that followed his first opera that premiered in 1705, Almira. In Handel’s mix of operas and oratorios, San Franciscans have three occasions to add to the tally this year at the very least. First up, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale’s concert performance of Saul has come to an end of a short season that took it to audiences across several Californian venues - including Los Angeles’ Disney Hall - since it opened on 6th April in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. My opportunity to see it came on Friday evening within the classical-revival elegance of San Francisco’s beautifully proportioned Herbst Theatre. The results were splendid and the pleasures it gave were plentiful.

Daniel Okulitch as Saul 
With a libretto freely adapted by Charles Jennens from the First Book of Samuel
in the Old Testament, Saul, composed in 1739, is usually performed as an oratorio in concert form, but here and there has also been staged as an opera - the most notable recent example being Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s spectacular staging by director Barrie Kosky. 

Though not entirely, much of the story centres on Saul, King of the Israelites, and his insecurity and fear of losing popularity to the brave young warrior David, slayer of the Philistine giant Goliath. First, Saul praises David’s victory and offers Merab, one of his daughters, in marriage to her disgust. Adding to the dilemma, Merab’s sister Michal is in love with David. Worse, when Saul has a change of heart he compels his son Jonathan, who has sworn devotion to David, to kill him. 

Without the creative trimmings of the theatre, conductor Nicholas McGegan’s respectful and intimate approach allowed the drama’s psychological aspect to resonate significantly, together with soloists who painted their own talented mark on Handel’s score. Handel’s chorus work gleamed in its attractive offset parts - the final “Gird on thy sword, though man of might” a particularly resplendent blend - but it was the dramatic polarity achieved in contrasting voice types between Saul and David that impressively capped the drama.  

Gravelly and robustly structured bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch’s Saul was outstanding and no-one gave the text such clarity as he showed with it, excelling in both recitative and aria. When the pressure mounted, Okulitch let loose in gripping and emphatic form, portraying Saul’s troubled inner thoughts with excruciating mental pain with the physical bearing to match. 
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as David and
 Sherezade Panthaki as Michal

As David, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was a magnetic presence as he sang with unassuming sincerity and heroism, his syrupy, stirring and easily floated countertenor a beguiling force for audience and admiring Israelites of the chorus alike. In David’s Act 1 slow-tempo aria, “O Lord, whose mercies numberless”, in which he sings a summoning of tranquility to quell Saul’s fury, the delicacy and grace of Cohen’s countertenor shone with comforting, dreamy beauty. Equally compelling came the heft and smouldering darker tones of the voice in Act 3’s “Impious wretch, of race accurst!” when the loyal David learns of Jonathan and Saul’s death in battle. 

The romantic duets with lustrous soprano Sherezade Panthaki’s swooning Michal were special highlights in which the pleasure of unity came with glorious vocal alignment, the amorous strains of Act 2’s “O fairest of ten thousand fair” picked up by a perfectly sublime chorus. Panthaki herself made a stronger impression the more she settled after early vocal leaps that lacked smooth transition. Her final aria, “In sweetest harmony they liv’d” was completely absorbing, the crystal top notes created with ease and the full extent of the voice interpreting her father and brother’s death utterly convincingly.

As Merab, mellifluous, bell-like soprano Yulia Van Doren was radiant both as privileged princess and heartfelt woman. Not one, it appeared, to avoid the spices available to her in the text, Van Doren made especially fine work of Act 1’s “Capricious man, in humour lost” with arabesque trills and gymnastic register shifts that added much to her animated performance. 
Conductor Nicholas McGegan and Yulia Van Doren as Merab

Aaron Sheehan’s warm and pure tenor met the needs of a man besotted by courage but could have done with a little more vigour in giving Jonathan a greater sense that a heart was being torn when Saul commands him to murder David. Shiny tenor Jonathan Smucker stepped from the chorus into the roles of the Witch of Endor, Abner and a Amalekite in good form. But then this treat. Commandingly sung with a spot of welcome natural-sounding English, bass-baritone Christian Pursell not only made the most of the two smaller roles of Dieg and Samuel but made you want more. And how relishing the sound and adaptability of the chorus lived under Bruce Lamott’s directorship.

Evident too was the warm collegiality among the players of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. The synchronicity of the violins resonated superbly under concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock’s leading choreographed-like bow strokes and body movements, Janet See and Mindy Rosenfeld’s flute accompaniment shared sweet atmospheric equality and Kristin Zoernig and Michael Minor’s double bass work stamped an endearing mark. And with his team, McGegan admirably eschewed the grandiose and opted for lightness, eloquence and precision.

Handel’s achievements are many but when a large audience sits and turns the pages of their programs in unison to the libretto to his glorious music, 280 years after its composition, you couldn’t imagine Bible Studies being any more exhilarating. 

More Handel comes in June with San Francisco Opera’s new production of Orlando - you get to hear Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in the role of Medoro - and of course, Handel’s Messiah will bring uplifting spirit to the Christmas festive season. I’m not even a local but I’m counting on being there.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale 
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco 
12th April 2019

Production Photos: Frank Wing (from opening night performance)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A West Side Story of passion, intensity and understanding...and gobsmacking dance at Arts Centre Melbourne

Opening on Tuesday night at Melbourne’s State Theatre as part of an international tour - back with a fresh cast after its premiere Australian season in 2010 - the gang tensions, the animosities and the doomed romance that reside in West Side Story exploded with passion, intensity and understanding. But Holy Mary Mother of God, the dancing was a gobsmacking, extraordinary triumph. What also showed was that musical theatre in this country has a healthy, vibrant batch of performers who’ll be thrilling and entertaining into a far distant future in top quality form.

Todd Jacobsson as Tony and Ensemble, West Side Story 
In a production restaged by Jerome Robbins prodigy Joey McKneely, as director and choreographer, the results fabulously showcased Robbins’ original concept for a contemporary musical inspired by an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and of its highly collaborative team of Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book). It’s a lavish-looking affair, backed by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment, of the BB Group production that opened at London’s Sadlers Wells.

Dark themes of racial hatred, fear of the ‘other’ and violent response dominate in a perfectly seamed drama in which a radiant romance between boy and girl from opposing gangs plants seeds of hope which later vanish in its community of entrenched directionless youth. It sounds familiar. The 1950s New York ethnic working class neighbourhood of rival gangs where Robbins based his story might have disappeared with urban renewal but the blood racial hatred and discrimination spills hasn’t and shamefully stains communities everywhere. On top of this, the soaring dance and melodies of West Side Story act much like a plea for fairness and sensibility without sugaring issues that can’t be solved easily. It makes a powerful statement.

The first words spoken, “Brown boy!”, immediately establish the mood. From there, every kick, punch and kapow, the pirouettes, leaps and grace of Joey McKneely’s choreography, what one could compare in expression to what emotional depths are achieved in opera, are attuned to Bernstein’s evocative, synergetic music. Orchestra Victoria, in strong force with more than 30 of its musicians in the pit, sounded plush with musical director Donald Chan securely in charge.

The Jets, West Side Story, Arts Centre Melbourne
Stage area is appropriately prioritised for large ensemble dance sequences. If not for the big black and white photographic backgrounds, set designer Paul Gallis’ framework of balconies and stairs that flank either side - and come together as they do for a marvellous scene as Tony sings up to Maria above - doesn’t always convince. Under some of Peter Halbsgut’s cocktail of lighting, it looked more Bangkok bamboo than New York steel. And Renate Schmitzer’s costumes often appear to be too squeaky clean with the Puerto Ricans immigrants weighed down by stereotypical falsity. The upside is that in the melee, the Jets and the Sharks are always distinguishable.

The muscularity, precision and dance formations are the compelling driver of the drama that often jolts with shock and occasionally invites the comic in this rarer musical with a tragic ending. Anita’s rape by the Jets is genuinely confronting and blatantly criminal in its aggressive dance, the fight scenes are heart-stopping and Tony’s death is a sudden blow no matter if you see it coming. In contrast, the tune and sparkling dance of Anita and the Puerto Rican chickadees in “America” and the Jet boys’ mockery of Officer Krupke and the police in “Gee, Officer Krupke” make their point as they elevate the spirit. Kudos to each and everyone for the massive, energetic and flawless workout given and teamwork displayed.

As Tony and Maria, Todd Jacobsson and Sophie Salvesani created an affecting pair as love’s uncontrollable bliss presents dreams of the future. In charming velvety flexible voice, Jacobsson fired up the optimism with sincerity in his opening song, “Something’s Coming”. While a shimmering veil of orchestral sound carried Jacobsson’s warm lyrical tones and choirboy beauty of “Maria”, the voice was unsettled in duet with Salvesani’s luminous, confident and blooming richness in “Tonight”. Later in the bridal shop, as the two dance their imaginary wedding in “One Hand, One Heart”, the chemistry and voices blended and shone at their most effective but Salvesani always presented as the more secure of the two.

Sophie Salvesani as Maria and Todd Jacobsson as Tony
Chloe Zuel was a standout as the vivacious and lush voiced Anita, As the Sharks’ kingpin, Lyndon Watts superbly wore the cool suavity and menacing moves of Bernardo and if Noah Mullins could’ve packed a punch earlier in voice and brawn as rival gang leader, as he grew to be by Act 1’s violent finale, a more convincing Riff would’ve shown.

Smaller youth roles were amply filled with cranked up talent - a special mention going to Molly Bugeja for her seemingly always everywhere persevering tomboyish Anybodys. The adults - Richie Singer’s well-meaning Doc, Dean Vince’s unscrupulous Officer Krupke, Paul Dawber’s assertive Lieutenant Schrank and Paul Hanlon’s limp-wristed Glad Hand - are depicted helplessly behind ‘barriers’ both have erected. “You make the world lousy!”, says Doc, to which the reply comes, “That’s how we found it.” Just as Maria and Anita sing “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong,” so too, the nature of relationships cannot be weighed easily. The disturbing outcome and truth that West Side Story presents is that this is a never-ending story.

West Side Story 
Opera Australia
Arts Centre Melbourne

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Pinchgut Opera return south for a rousing night of Bach and Telemann at Melbourne Recital Centre

After more than 15 years of building a strong identity in the world of baroque opera, Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera finally have their eye on Melbourne. Last December the company’s first step into the city came with American coloratura mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux in concert. For their second trip south on Saturday night, another highly enthusiastic audience had the good fortune of witnessing the exciting sound Artistic Director Erin Helyard never fails to extract from the Orchestra of the Antipodes and the period instruments they perform on. 

Erin Helyard conducting the Orchestra of the Antipodes at
in Bach and Telemann at Melbourne Recital Centre
The program consisted of two works. J. S. Bach’s more commonly performed Easter Oratorio from 1725 took the second half to an uplifting close but it was the Australian premiere of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Thunder Ode of 1756/1760 that not only stimulated with its wide-ranging colours, moods and tempos but from which Helyard - conducting from harpsichord and chamber organ - especially uncovered layers of musical spice that made it the more rousing of the two.

Opening with a majestic hymn and followed by a succession of arias, Telemann’s two-part Thunder Ode, written in response to Lisbon’s devastating earthquake on All Saints’ Day 1755, showcased just how inventive baroque music could be. Five soloists - Alexandra Oomens, Anna Dowsley, Richard Butler, David Greco and Andrew O’Connor - worked divinely as a chorus, having the ability to both shine with individual clarity and showing attentiveness to the balance they created with each of their colleagues. 

Oomens was the first soloist to take centre stage as the others sat two aside, her angelic and breezy soprano filtering the air with "Bringt her, ihr Helden”. It was the second part’s “Schönster von allen Geschlechten” that Oomens branded excellence on every aspect of her performance with daintily pure tones and inviting innocent gazes with Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg surrounding her with mellifluous flute obbligato. 

Soprano Alexandra Oomens and mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley
Dowsley assuredly established her command of “Fallt vor ihm hin”’s doleful strains with her full and rich mezzo-soprano, effortlessly gliding through her broad range with cleanly produced notes. Butler’s light and sunny tenor seemed a misjudged match for the short and frantic “Die Stimme Gottes erschüttert die Meere”. Muscular and plentiful in rugged bass voice, Greco impressed with his opening, “Die Stimme Gottes zerschmettert die Zedern” as did O’Connor in “Sie Stürzt Die Stolzen Gebirge Zusammen” with his smoky timbre and contrasting smooth, lyrical style. Greco and O’Connor’s ricocheting duet, “Er donnert, daß er verherrlichet werde”, highlighted the panache of a maverick with its wowing, earth-shattering display of the action and reaction of lighting and thunder, sung with Brian Nixon’s rumbling timpani. 

The second part soared with equal magnificence, including O’Connor’s flexible agitations in “Scharf Sind Deine Geschosse” to Carla Blackwood’s expert horn playing. Greco delivered a strident “Gürt An Dein Schwert!” and a reprise of the opening hymn, “Wie Ist Dein Name So Groß” concluded the second part in a euphoric blend of orchestral and vocal beauty you might have wished had no ending. And when thoughts were deflected from the actual splendour of the music, the large-titled translated text directed them no end to how great Thy Lord and God is. Telemann not only represented the symbolism of nature’s forces at work, but rallied Christians to a blameless God who could alleviate suffering - not such an easy sell today.

Erin Helyard, Orchestra of the Antipodes and soloists at
Melbourne Recital Centre in Bach and Telemann
In the second half, despite its nobility, its strengths and a timely presentation as Christians approach Holy Week, Bach’s Easter Oratorio sat in the shadow of Telemann’s work. An opening sinfonia and adagio showcased the warm string playing but the recorders and trumpets occasionally dithered. The chorus and duet of tenor and bass - Butler’s Peter and Greco’s John - followed with accomplished luminosity in “Kommt, eilet und laufet”. Though the aria overstays its welcome, Oomens returned with a stunningly beautiful and atmospheric “Seele, deine Spezereien” as Mary, daughter of James. Butler lost audibility in the bottom of the voice in an otherwise fluidly sung “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” and Dowsley’s treasurable fertile vocals resounded in “Saget, saget mir geschwinde” as Mary Magdalene after combining with Oomens in a superb recitative. So too was Greco’s robust recitative that followed. And in a marvellously sung final chorus of “Preis und Dank” Christ’s resurrection was celebrated while Hell and the devil are overcome. 

Oddly, I couldn’t help thinking how the celebrated J.S. Bach was outshone by Telemann. Was Bach’s work considered an appropriate accompaniment to an Australian premiere because Easter is upon us? Was it going to sell more tickets? Personally, I would have savoured a night full of Telemann. Still, it’s easy to bask in Pinchgut Opera’s glorious work.

Perhaps it’s simply my optimism at work but I’m putting it out there and saying it won’t be long before the company presents a short season of staged opera in Melbourne as they do at Sydney’s City Recital Hall twice a year. The city’s healthy helpings of opera are noticeably missing the baroque gems that Pinchgut Opera are winning awards for. 

Bach and Telemann
Pinchgut Opera
Melbourne Recital Centre, 6th April 2019
Sydney Recital Hall, 7th April 2019

Production Photos: Albert Comper

Thursday, April 4, 2019

A beautifully sung, trenchant and multi-perspective staging of Albert Herring from Melbourne Conservatorium of Music: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight Magazine 31st March 2019

The fictitious English village of Loxford was in quite a comic quandary. Though outwardly prim and proper in its wholesome rustic setting, no young woman listed as a May Queen candidate appeared worthy of its symbol of chastity and purity for the spring festival. In an ill-thought stroke of progressive thinking, however, a May King was decided upon and your heart went out to Loxford’s elected awkward young man, Albert Herring. But despite being mollycoddled by an overbearing mother, Albert showed the village what he’s made of after one huge overnight leap into adulthood’s adventures – all part of Benjamin Britten’s satirical three-act comic chamber opera.
Cast of Melbourne Conservatorium's Albert Herring, Act 3
Once again, following a powerfully chilling staging of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in 2018, the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music came up with the goods in a beautifully sung, trenchant and multi-perspective staging of Albert Herring. In a literally head-turning experience, the audience becomes completely surrounded by the action and festivities in this cleverly crafted production from director Jane Davidson.

Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier based the work on Guy de Maupassant’s 1887 novella, Le Rosier de Madame Husson, and gave it a 1900 setting. In Davidson’s portrayal, we’re bathed in yellow light before the drama gets underway and sitting around tables with complimentary popcorn for what seemed to evoke a peek into the 1940s, an appropriate update indeed for Britten’s work that premiered in 1947.

The backdrop provided by the wood-panelled dados and ornate Victorian plasterwork of Hawthorn Arts Centre’s old town hall interior are utilised cleverly by designer Matthew Adey. Albert’s mother’s grocer shop is decked out convincingly at one end, Lady Billows’ sitting room and the festival podium are neatly serviced by a platform on one side of the hall, the 13-member orchestra sit on the opposite side and an overhead balcony is perfectly incorporated for lovebirds Sid and Nancy’s street rendezvous. In busying the floor with multiple entrances and exits and pageantry that streams through the hall, the drama hurtles along and the sly comic touches are close at hand. Sourced externally, Karen Blinco and Rose McCormick’s fabulously delineated period costumes contributed immensely to the picture despite some erratic moods in lighting.
Louis Hurley as Albert Herring

On opening night, even though parts of the text evaporated due to acoustic limitations of both the hall and orchestra position, the village cast rose to the challenge of performing across the hall’s expanse. As May Day’s humiliated centre of attention dressed in white with crossed red sashes, a hat rimmed in flowers and bells and ribbons on his trousers, poor Albert was given priceless form by young golden tenor Louis Hurley (Alastair Cooper-Golec alternates in the role). Endearingly interpreted, Hurley made good use of his vocal flexibility in coursing Albert’s often squirming and bemused state as May King to courageous young man returning home after a night of presumed debauchery. Tellingly referred to by Sid as “a very dark horse”, all the way through Hurley’s convincing performance kept you rooting for Albert and feeling his predicament. Albert’s final jubilant offer of “Have a nice peach!” to the assembled folk, who had thought he’d met his death, is the final word on the soft innuendos that sprinkle the story. And with that, you willingly wanted to celebrate Albert’s victory.

It’s hard to imagine a more iron-fisted Lady Billows, Loxford’s May Day festival organiser, as full-bodied soprano Esther Counsel took reign of affairs with intimidating darting eyes. Pounding the floor as she did the text with smashing expressive largesse, Counsel’s big, bold and artful technique was a force to reckon with. Alongside her as Florence Pike, Lady Billows’ officious housekeeper, Emily Barber-Briggs just about stole the night with her severe countenance and eloquently articulated pearly mezzo-soprano that flowed with an utterly natural fit to Florence’s assertive manner.

In possession of a vivacious and pure soprano, Amelia Wawrzon easily caught the eye and ear as the chirpy headmistress Miss Wordsworth to the point you wondered why she didn’t herself raise a hand for May Queen. The Vicar received warm, lyrical and prayerful lines from Joshua Erdelyi-Götz and Simon Wright was excellent in colouring his well-meaning Superintendent Budd with regimental stiffness, impeccable diction and brawny bass-baritone. Darcy Carroll’s knockabout Sid and Chloe Harris’ honeyed Nancy paired superbly in amorous and bickering song. Completing the large ensemble, Teresa Ingrilli’s richly sung Mrs Herring and Benjamin Glover’s smug Mayor, along with Daisy Valerio, Phoebe Paine and Alastair Cooper-Golec as the cheeky village kids, added layers of texture to events.

Highlights of vocal sensitivity and blending came in Act 2’s glorious anthem to the newly crowned May King and Act 3’s mournful hymn for Albert around the counter in Mrs Herring’s shop. The only disappointment was in the overall acoustic balance that no doubt depended on where one sat. Nevertheless, conductor Paul Kildea’s lively pacing and the orchestra’s expert adaptability brought out a wealth of charm to Britten’s witty and eclectic score.

Aah, the sense of nostalgia was palpable, the homemade cakes and sandwiches looked delicious and everything seemed just right in a season in which peaches are plump with juice. But under it all, some individuals feel smothered, cast as misfits even, and Britten marvellously gave them a heroic voice, as did Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in their execution of it.

Timeless and beguiling, L'Amour de loin casts its spell in a new production from Ópera de Bellas Artes in Mexico City

A timeless and beguiling quality accompanies Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s 21st century opera based on a 12th century source, L'Amour de loin (“Love From Afar”). So too does a sense of the placeless and borderless despite its documented setting of Aquitaine in France, Tripoli in northern Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea that separates them. Little wonder then that since its world premiere in 2000 at the Salzburg Festival, the work has received numerous stagings around the world, including a season at the Metropolitan Opera in an acclaimed production directed by Robert Lepage in 2016.

Carla López-Speziale as the pilgrim and Jaakko Kortekangas as Jaufré
But it took a journey to Mexico City for me to witness first-hand the power of the work in the theatre. For its national premiere at the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Arte, Saariaho’s first opera was glorified in a thoughtfully abstracted new production from Ópera de Bellas Artes driven by intensely focused performances and scenographic movement from director Mauricio García Lozano.

L'Amour de loin tells the story of the well-known troubadour and prince of Blaye, Jaufré Rudel and his yearning for a love, assumed impossible, far away from the pleasures and entitlements he has exhausted. When a pilgrim informs him that a woman who befits his longing exists, the countess of Tripoli, Jaufré’s hopes are raised. The pilgrim acts as a go-between, relaying a rhapsodic song Jaufré sang for her and lifting the countess’ spirits. Her name is Clémence, originally from Toulouse and filled with a longing to return. The pilgrim returns to Jaufré who decides he wants to make the trip to Tripoli to meet Clémence. He and the pilgrim sail together but Jaufré becomes increasingly sick as they approach port. The two meet, express their devotion but their time is tragically brief. Jaufré dies in her arms. An agonised Clémence, in a transfiguration of sorts, decides to enter a convent.

On the surface, there seems little this medieval tale offers to a globally connected modern world. Less character-identifying and more conceptual in approach, underneath, however, exists a tugging to-and-fro of opposites - of male and female, of the known and unknown, of curiosities and fears and of the existential and divine. Altogether, Saariaho has created the ambience of a sacred oratorio in which inexplicable forces bind then tear Jaufré’ and Clémence apart.

An introspectively focused piece, if the vibrations of the cosmos were attempted to be harnessed in music, L’Amour de loin could come close to describing it. Liquid, luminous, ethereal, full of textural contrasts and exotic colours, the ebb and flow of Saariaho’s score effortlessly parallels the poetic, often esoteric nature of Lebanese author Amin Maalouf’s libretto. In particular, the use of brass is utterly breathtaking. Just as a ship’s foghorn resonates, so too does Saariaho’s brass as it communicates across a body of water. And just as a pebble causes ripples when thrown into a pond, so too do Saariaho’s orchestral harmonies and layers in generating alluring motion.

Agnieska Sławińska as Clémence
Sung in French with Spanish titles, I expected some difficulty in understanding the nuances. A decent command of Italian helped to some point but Lozano’s direction elucidated the poetic and Jorge Ballina’s design captured the dramatic flow so superbly, the synergy of music, text and staging brought ineffable clarity.

Ballina’s thoughtfully abstracted and seductively realised design goes far in highlighting isolation, separation and time.  A black proscenium-filled screen opens up in a various assortment of horizontal slits and broadening or diminishing rectangles and squares to pinpoint and expand the setting. Behind, layers of translucent screens backlit with bands of bright light are raised and lowered to evoke both sea and sky. Opal-blue and sandy-gold predominate, a slither of stone represents each of the two ‘continents’ and, although  planar in effect, perspective is altered frequently. Artist Mark Rothko’s compositional aesthetic fused with the dynamism of Kinetic art might give some indication of the Ballina’s artistic imagination. Victor Zapatero and Rafael Mendoza’s aqueous illuminations and Mario Marin del Rio’s character-distinguishing period-fluid costumes suitably assist the effect.

Most mesmerising of all is the illusion created as perspective changes to give a birds eye view of Jaufré and the pilgrim sailing across the sea, Clémence swimming below as part of Jaufré’s hallucination and the little red boat transporting them taking on the form of a conspicuous vaginal cocoon. Or was I mistaken? But nestled in female genitalia somehow gives Jaufré both maternal protection with thoughts of love’s sexual expression on his long voyage.

For its two-hour length, not including interval, you would hardly think L'Amour de loin is so demanding a sing because the three soloists - Jaakko Kortekangas as Jaufré, Agnieska Sławińska as Clémence and Carla López-Speziale as the pilgrim - gave an effortlessly convincing picture and form to their roles. Portraying Jaufré with a dignified yet soulful demeanour, Finnish baritone Kortekangas’ arcing performance across vulnerability and eventual collapse was delivered with compelling sensitivity. Burnished and smooth of tone, Kortekangas cut an imposing figure, making great impact with his voice’s warmer lyrical qualities in particular. The resonance certainly was evident but occasion cried out for heftier declamatory lines that could have elevated the effect immensely.

Carla López-Speziale as the pilgrim
Staff permanently in hand and wispily bearded, Mexican local López-Speziale capably shaped the fluid, often meditative tone of the pilgrim with her rich-toned mezzo-soprano. But the luminaire of the evening, on this third night of four performances, was Strasbourg-based Polish soprano Agnieska Sławińska. Lucent, pure and assured in voice, while combining dramatic and expressive command, Sławińska embodied Clémence in vivid states of sadness, hope, passion and grief with striking poignancy and beauty.

A large unseen but resplendent chorus back of stage is woven into the trio of voices adding comment with eerie echoes and rhythmic chants. At times, electronic enhancements provide an enveloping field of sound that whispers in the ear to add a surreal touch. And the daunting task of sculpting the entire near-hypnotic ambience came down to Mexican conductor José Areán who embraced every phrase with a passionate sense of command. Importantly, the pit musicians never broke the spell they cast in playing the shimmering and strident stream of sound with precision.

In the end, it might not so much be the story you take away with you and a complete sense of having understood its meaning as it is an immersion in the journey from one state to another that Saariaho takes you on. That alone is transformative and an experience contemporary lives can do with. So, where to next for L'Amour de loin? Could it be that Australia will nourish its opera-goers with its effect some time soon?

And finally, based on the quality and creativity Ópera de Bellas Artes have brought to the stage, its sad to leave without knowing whether I’ll ever return again to see another work. I certainly want to believe, like Jaufré, I can make that long journey too.

L'Amour de loin 
Ópera de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
Until 4th April, 2019

Production Photos: courtesy of Ópera de Bellas Artes