Sunday, October 20, 2019

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

Published online at Limelight Magazine, 21st October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Lyz Turner-Clark

Thursday, October 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Sunday, October 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Photos: Cory Weaver