Thursday, July 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Production Photos: 

Monday, July 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross