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