Saturday, April 11, 2020

Parsifal: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
Performance Date: 2nd March, 2013
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
11th April, 2020


If you’re looking for something more profound to add to the Easter eggs and hot cross buns to celebrate the Easter weekend but don’t quite see yourself switching onto one of the many streamed masses to mark Christ’s death and resurrection, you could consider turning to opera. The latest Met Opera free nightly opera steam is Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Based on a Medieval story concerning the wandering fool Parsifal who is destined to become the saviour of the Grail Knights, Wagner’s final, epic work champions humility, compassion and enlightenment. We need those qualities now, as always, and God knows we have the time like never before to mull over and soak us in its sublimity.

Parsifal demands more than four hours of time but when the overture begins, it’s a music that initiates its erasure and beckons a landscape of tranquility and hope within a spiritual-like realm. In the pit, Italian Conductor Daniele Gatti conveys that spirituality with great sensitivity with various tempi leaning toward an unhurried yet malleable nature.

In French-Canadian director François Girard’s barren and gloomy production which premiered in 2013, scenes of forests and meadows, castles and wondrous gardens which Wagner’s libretto refers to are nowhere in sight. From the start, Girard sets about establishing a ritualistic tone. Movements are as restrained as the dramatic momentum. Girard’s knights are uniformed in contemporary-styled black trousers and white shirts, the flower maidens who attempt to seduce Parsifal are a sway of flimsy white fabric while the temptress, Kundry, is a bedraggled gypsy. And there’s blood, lots of it, including a pool of blood in which Kundry and the maidens dance and cavort. It is undoubtedly blood as sin.

Featuring a trench of running water dividing a parched earth with menacing skies in the distance, Act 1 is the setting for the soul-searching Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, who desperately seeks forgiveness after receiving a wound from the sacred spear he was entrusted to after being seduced by Kundry in the domain of the expelled knight, Klingsor. As Amfortas, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei baritone brings compelling heat and reverberant strength to a man punished like no other, acting as if living the pain and guilt in superb performance.

As Gurnemanz, veteran Knight of the Grail, Italian bass René Pape expresses the perceptive but steadfastly firm ministerial-like authority of his character in richly brewed vocal depth and impressive control. Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman, whose distinctive stature and dramatic textures were recently witnessed in Victorian Opera’s Parsifal last year in Melbourne, brings fiery radiance and fierce darkness with extraordinary height and depth as a disturbed Kundry and, introduced in his cavernous domain in a pool of blood, bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin’s menacing Klingsor is brought to evil life in crisp and sculptured stoney form.

And the glorious title role? Renowned German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, is an ideal Parsifal. When he first appears in Act, his Parsifal is as perplexed as anyone would be by the ceremonial oddities he finds himself witnessing and is in hot demand by slinking maidens in Act 2. Kaufmann’s Parsifal moves with gentleness and poise, the vocal load building from Act 1 to the brilliant power expressing the agony of Amfortas’ wound in Parsifal’s revelatory “Amfortas! - Die Wunde! - Die Wunde!” and a coruscating final aria when the spear heals Amfortas’ wound and the Holy Grail is uncovered.

And when Gurnemanz sings “... you who have suffered everything He suffered. Allow this one burden to be lifted from your head”, guilt is washed away in a sign of forgiveness we can all seek on our own way to enlightenment.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Macbeth: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Giuseppe Verdi
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
Performance Date: 11th October, 2014
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn 
5th April, 2020


Verdi’s Macbeth, premiered in 1847 and composed in the fruitful years that launched his universal acclaim, forms a thrilling multi sensory experience retelling Shakespeare’s early 17th century play. A climate of fear and superstition abounds and the quest for power so great, murder seems the easiest option. Buckets of blood are spilled but the price is eventually paid. Despite the story’s general familiarity, you might find yourself holding your breath in constant anticipation as Verdi’s operatic picture unfolds. 

When the curtain goes up, you can sense some challenges ahead in this second revival of English director Adrian Noble’s 2007 staging when a bunch of dowdy women, as the prophesizing witches who Macbeth and Banquo encounter, emerge from a forest singing and waving their handbags. The original work’s loose connection with 11th century Scottish history is replaced by a Second World War aesthetic while question marks keep popping up in this rather superficial concept. 

Musically, you couldn’t ask for more from Italian conductor Fabio Luisi who gave an urgent and emphatic reading of the score, the overture instantly invoking the foreboding ahead in astonishing intelligence and style.

In the title role, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić wears the mantle of cold authority solidly. Not so is Lučić’s unsteady start to a man haunted by his own evil and sense of fear. I’ve heard Lučić in excellent form many times but the broad range, lion-strength instrument he possesses lacks refinement at the top here and comes across forced. Certainly, the mental torment Macbeth endures is depicted convincingly but it’s not until his final aria alone onstage that the combination of man and voice give everything, in the plangent, introspective mood of “Pietà, rispetto, amore”.

There is no disappointment with star Russian soprano Anna Netrebko’s vocal depiction as Lady Macbeth in what was her role debut. Netrebko’s first appearance comes from under the bedcovers, unleashing an opening aria and cabaletta full of rich-centred ferocity, burnished edges and soaring freedom at the top, asserting her Lady Macbeth as what seems more than ruler of the bedroom. Act 2’s “La luce langue” brings stunning height and a crazed demeanour  at the sumptuous state banquet but, in the final toast she makes to her guests, her acting comes across feeling much too dissociated and overly aggressive. 

Netrebko’s greatest combination of voice and acting, like Lučić’s, comes in Act 4’s “Una macchia è qui tuttora”, when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks - mounting the furniture once again - after wringing her hands in an attempt to wash them of blood. Sadly, the passion at play in the pair’s relationship is markedly unbalanced from the start and Act 3’s finale duet, “Ora di morte e di vendetta”, is a particularly awkward mess as Lady Macbeth drags her king to the floor after they resolve to kill Banquo’s son as well as Macduff and his family.

As Banquo, it’s a great loss when German René Pape’s earthy and commanding bass disappears from the stage after his murder in Act 2. Pape’s great forward march in the voice and seemingly utter ease of vocal production fuse marvellously with Banquo’s brave spirit and cautionary eye but, subsequently, it’s only his silent blood-stained ghost we get to see when he returns to haunt  Macbeth.

Rendered in Joseph Calleja’s Macduff is a warm-hearted and distinguished air, the Maltese tenor’s delectably honeyed and smooth Italianate voice bringing enormous sensitivity to Act 3, “O figli, o figli midi! ... Ah, la paterna mano”, an affecting tribute to his murdered family. The chorus of witches, nobles and soldiers are superb in voice and I should mention that the performance is introduced by Georgian soprano Anita Rachvelishvili whose infectious smile and enthusiasm alone should have you settled and excited quickly. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Don Carlo: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Don Carlo
Giuseppe Verdi
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn


I’ll keep this brief. I just scraped in on catching New York’s Met Opera free nightly opera stream. On this occasion, it was a chance to revisit one of my certain favourites, Don Carlo. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen this opera but I’ve seen this Met Opera production by English director Nicholas Hytner on two occasions, March 2013 and April 2015 with different casts. Hytner’s original production premiered in November 2010 with this on-demand offering filmed on my birthday, 11th December. It turns out, on that day, I was in Los Angeles sitting through another Verdi masterpiece, Rigoletto.

In any of its various revisions, Verdi’s sublime, monumental drama is a work that binds plot with music in a triumph of art. And for this, the Met has assembled an extraordinary cast to satisfy the heavy demands required.

Hytner’s notable contribution is seen in the outlining of palpable personal connections and riveting action that responds coherently with the music to which Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s purposeful guidance brings out the work’s ongoing tension with refined musicianship from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The only problem is that Bob Crowley’s stylised set designs rarely feel supportive despite the excellence of his own sumptuous period costumes and Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting.

Set at the height of the Spanish Inquisition in mid-16th century France and Spain, the storyline is a festering drama around the King Philip II of Spain’s marriage to Elizabeth of Valois - daughter of the French king and formerly betrothed to Philip’s son Don Carlo - after a deal is struck as part of a peace treaty between the two monarchies. Elizabeth and Don Carlo are in love but duty to her people stops Elizabeth from refusing the king’s hand. What ensues are personal agonies played out against political unrest as church and state lie at uneasy crossroads.

‪French tenor Roberto Alagna is convincingly passionate as an emotionally laden Don Carlo. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, equally burdened by concealed love, delivers a sophisticated performance as a thoroughly radiant and uncannily courageous Elizabeth. And ruling with starved compassion as Philip II, cavernous Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto meshes the king’s public and private affairs in a sensational, brooding manner.

Amongst the tragedy, 19th century opera’s greatest bromance, stoked with rapturous music and tenderness, is the beautiful and poignant relationship between Don Carlo and his trusted friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. In British baritone Simon Keenlyside’s virile and untiring performance, Rodrigo is armoured in heroism and centred with loyalty, his death a heartfelt blow to Don Carlo and audience alike. Fuelling the drama too is the vengeful court aristocrat in love with Don Carlo, Princess Eboli and Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova is a galleon of riches in the role, producing a whirlwind stunner with Act 4’s famous aria, “O don fatal", after having confessed to Elizabeth that it was she who told the King that Elisabeth and Carlos were having an affair.

Adrenaline runs rampant through the work with highlights coming one after the other: Act I’s pledge of loyalty between Don Carlo and Rodrigo, Act 3’s riveting trio of Don Carlo, Rodrigo and Princess Eboli when she threatens to tell the King that Elisabeth and Carlos are lovers, as well as the massed of the act’s concluding auto-da-fé scene, Philip II’s sleepless night while deliberating over his wife’s barren love for him and punishment of his son in Act 4 and Elizabeth’s eventual aching aria, wishing to consign herself to death, at the haunted tomb of Charles V.

I guess I wasn’t so brief after all!

Nixon in China: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Nixon in China
John Adams
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
3rd April, 2020


By the time I got the time to revisit Nixon in China as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly opera stream and my #CoronaCouchOpera experience, it was late into the night. I couldn’t resist. When I checked, it turns out I was in the audience there 15th February 2011, three days after this iconic Peter Sellars production was filmed.

Despite the opera’s success, you don’t get the opportunity to often see it. Fortunately, however, I got to see the same production in June 2012 at San Francisco Opera and the following year, in May 2013, by VictorianOpera from director Roger Hodgman in a beautifully drawn artistic production.

It’s almost 50 years since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s world headline visit to China in 1972, after 25 years of of hostilities between the two countries. Revisiting Adams’ 1987 opera, despite China’s interim economic advances, political relations remain touchy at the best of times, with a side of xenophobia that never seems to go away. There’s still so much that remains in Sellars’ production that evokes the time with visceral strength when two conflicting nations strain to shake hands.

The mechanically choreographed nature of Sellars’ direction with choreographer Mark Morris, Adam’s hypnotic score with it’s frequent repetitions bound to Alice Goodman’s plain-spoken libretto and early Communism’s drab aesthetic all combine marvellously as manufactured-like components of heavy industry.

Since the 1987 world premiere, hefty winter-warming baritone James Maddalena has stepped into Richard Nixon’s shoes countless times and it shows in an assured performance that reveals much of his character’s duality of public and private life. As Chairman Mao, the power in Robert Brubaker’s broad tenor reaches such extremes that his philosophising seems to just about go down the gurgler. And how wonderful are the three translators used effectively to surround him in choreographed spin.

Pat Nixon is crisply drawn as a bright and affable First Lady by Scottish soprano Janis Kelly, a woman showing real heart and concern for matters. And Wow! Wow! Penetrating soprano Kathleen Kim shoots daggers with every note in a sensational show as the tornado-force Mrs Mao while baritone Richard Paul Fink is solid in voice and an unsavoury caricature as Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

One of the best performances comes from suave baritone Russell Braun, soldierly and commanding as Chinese Premier Chou. And whether the nuances of his words are understood or not, he sings with absolute charisma, his speech at the Great Hall of the People a notably big highlight.

The spirit and events of the first and second act, in particular, rise and fall marvellously in dramatic interest whereas, apart from the idea how personalities are explored and played out behind-the-scenes, there might not be much concentration ability left for the third act. Perhaps it has something to do with the absence of the en pointe Metropolitan Opera Chorus who marched and sang through the first two acts splendidly.

It’s a treat to see John Adams there to conduct as well, the momentum of the score turning and turning out great textural results despite Adams holding back too tentatively under a cast of singers with otherwise ample volume in supply. I have no doubt that, if we get through these trying times without too many opera companies being grounded permanently, there’ll be a few new outings for the work in 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of President Nixon in China.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



Der Ring des Nibelungen
Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
25th - 28th March 2020


It’s been over two weeks since my last post. Yesterday, one week into my own #StayAtHome, I sobbed for the first time. I’ve just come out of director Robert Lepage’s Ring Cycle as part of New York’s Met Opera nightly opera streams. Spread over four days with my own in-house catering and distractions I would never let anyone get away with at the theatre, the hours spent with Wagner’s great gift to life made an appreciated and connected experience with his smorgasbord of richly portrayed characters.

I sobbed for Siegfried’s unjust death, Brünnhilde’s suffering and loss and perhaps amongst those emotions came a few for our own reckless world. Lepage’s Ring culminated in a riveting Götterdämmerung to finish four quite unforgettable days.

The Ring teaches us that everything is connected - man, nature, reason and spirit - and that hope should never fade for a new order where rule is governed by fairness, not by power and greed. There’s a particular saliency in its themes right now with the world in crisis like we haven’t seen in our day. Will what we learn now about ourselves change us to act responsibly when things improve? No other point in living memory has given us an opportunity so glaringly.

I saw Lepage’s Das Rheingold 9th March last year but missed the rest of the cycle. The Met Opera nightly streams are audio visual recordings of the four works when they first premiered, beginning over the 2011/12 season.

For me, Götterdämmerung and Siegfried make up the better resolved parts of Lepage’s Ring, both of which give a greater sense of character action-reaction. And the grained Gibichung Hall comes up superbly as one of the more splendid applications of Carl Fillion’s mechanised set. However, I’m still left feeling this one ever-present gargantuan piece of machinery limited the potential for ideas during the course. Likewise, the costuming. But of absolute pleasure and excellence was a music that deepens our sense of humanity by artists of incredible talent.

Jay Hunter Morris maintains the gung-ho spirit Siegfried lives by with a cheeky glint in the eye and a fabulously heated golden tone to go with it. He also convincingly makes the journey from ignorant youth to awakened manhood, easily winning sympathy on his gallant adventure.

As Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt is at her most fierce and affecting when shamed before the Gibichung, then singing with beautiful emotion and sincerity over Siegfried’s body before Brünnhilde’s final act of wisdom and selflessness.

Hans-Peter König is an unswerving force whose grand, monolithic bass gives hateful character to Hagen, Iain Paterson is impressively sturdy and resonant as a distinguished though insecure Gunther and Wendy Bryn Harmer is maiden fair and radiant voiced as Gutrune.

Way back, starting with Das Rheingold, Bryn Terfel is a masterful Wotan, rock solid in voice while subtly exposing troubling fissures in his command. Eric Owens wows as the big standout as Alberich, presenting greed and sinisterly ease in tones of dark and swampy strength. Stephanie Blythe is full and rich as Fricka in all her imploring genuineness. Richard Croft weaves his way about splendidly as Loge but it was Dwayne Croft’s thundering Donner who I particularly loved in the smaller roles.

Next up, in Die Walküre, comes the chorus of fiercely singing Valkyries, Deborah Voigt untiring in voice, slicing the air with razor sharpness as a fearless, high-spirited Brünnhilde and Bryn Terfel back solidly with more huff and puff as an anguished Wotan. When Jonas Kaufmann opens the first act, it takes little time to sink into his suave and endlessly smooth tone as Siegmund and develops in increasingly robust and gallant form as his fate progresses. Eva-Maria Westbroek gives a sensational performance, the most convincing for me, with singing that yields heart wrenching psychological clarity as part of Sieglinde’s journey while Hans-Peter König is a colossal-voiced Hunding who few would want to cross.

By the time we get to Siegfried, with singing that gave it all, a round of lozenges to soothe well-worked throats seemed in order. In the title role, coppery tenor Jay Hunter Morris is the fearless Wälsung and one we get to know with great intimacy, his penetrating blue eyes and long blonde waves exuding youth with dynamite in the voice that burns constantly to the passionate and heroic finale.

Vocally gnarled and animated, Gerhard Siegel puts on a brilliant show as Mime, a slimy, fidgety weasel channelling a good draft of Benny Hill. Act 1 certainly is the highlight as Siegel and Hunter Morris pace and deploy the drama with seamlessness and interest. Bryn Terfel brings a sensitively tempered aspect to The Wanderer, Eric Owens makes a lion-strength return as Alberich and, when Brünnhilde is finally awoken, she is given lush, poetic beauty by Voigt, though the top forte at times felt forced.

Thanks to all, including the hardworking Met Opera Orchestra, who propelled and oiled the entire drama exceptionally and filled my living room with an experience I’m generally only accustomed to at the theatre. Looks like there will be more to come.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
29th March 2029

4.5 stars

I finally surfaced from Otto Schenk’s spectacular period masterpiece set to Wagner’s epic comedy and longest opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Ok, it isn’t laugh-out-loud stuff but Schenk does manage to mine what’s there nicely and he does so with a filmmaker’s eye.

What shines through at the heart of the work, and needing it more than ever now to return to our lives, is the necessity for art’s preservation and presence. And while there are rules that govern the way we live amongst each other, artistic expression, with air to breath, will flourish regardless. That all churns about in a plot that revolves around a song competition in which the prize is the hand in marriage to the young woman Eva, arranged by her father Veit Pogner.

Maybe it was my unsophisticated audio but Johan Botha seemed to lose the patina at the upper edges of the voice despite maintaining vocal power and sturdiness. Regardless, he’s much too static in his role as the knight charging into new territory, Eva’s love interest, Walther. Annette Dasch, on the other hand, charms as a radiant and pure sounding Eva, swaying along smartly from one scene to another.

The chemistry was far more appealing between Paul Appleby’s toasty voiced David and Karen Cargill’s lush and perky Lena. And, with a voice that dances colourfully on the music, Johannes Martin Kränzle is a fine ,melodramatic and jumpy Beckmesser.

The star, of course, is German baritone Michael Volle who I’ve heard sing Hans Sachs twice at Bayreuth’s Wagner Festival. Volle is exactly the right man in the cobbler’s chair, the man who senses the beauty and freshness of Walther’s rule-breaking song. Here, the heft and flexibility of voice comes with a richly carved oak tone while every note is accompanied by natural, convincing gestures.

You also get the rare opportunity to see the Met Opera Chorus up close, making their mark with both superbly united singing and acting that creates an exciting picture of life. And in the pit, briskness, subtlety and nobility feature under James Levine and the fab Met Opera Orchestra.

There’s one more production remaining as part of Met Opera’s Wagner Week and nightly opera streams. I’ll be back with a little blurb on Tannhäuser tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tannhäuser: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
30th March 2020


Wagner’s enthralling paean to penitence and redemption, Tannhäuser, closed Wagner Week as part of New York’s Met Opera nightly opera streams. And, as the only time I’ve seen opera on video of an opera I’ve seen live, it brought back memories still cherished. Filmed on 31st Oct, 2015, 12 days after I saw it at the Met, it’s another long-living and lavish production from 1977 by director Otto Schenk - perfectly illustrative but something of an old museum piece - and another example of superb camera direction responding to an expert understanding of the score.

There’s the title character, Tannhäuser, a medieval knight and minnesinger, who left the court of the Landgrave of Thuringia after a disagreement with his fellow knights, then lured into the pleasures of love in Venus’ domain, Venusberg. Longing for freedom after his desires are satiated, Tannhäuser finally departs and comes by his minnesinger friends who convince him to rejoin them. But no sooner is he welcomed back, and rekindling romantic overtures with the Landgrave of Thuringia’s niece, Elizabeth, he’s banished after singing blasphemously about the nature of love. After being forced to join the pilgrims on a journey to Rome to seek atonement, rather than being absolved, Tannhäuser is cursed. In a transcendental like intervention, Elizabeth gives her life as his saviour.

Schenk sure knows how to both fill the Met’s massive stage with people reflecting a spectrum of life and manage the details that go with it convincingly. The more intimate scenes are sometimes less well handled but every angle comes together splendidly in the final third act.

An abundance of vocal expression and power comes with Johan Botha’s nonconformist Tannhäuser, although it’s not until the second act that every foundation feels solid. Act 3’s “Rome Narrative” is certainly his summit, rivetingly sung with mountains of disappointment and despair. As Tannhäuser’s angelic saviour, Elisabeth, Eva-Maria Westbroek is a jewel, her lustrous and pearly soprano cradling affectingly measured emotion and her Act 3 prayer to the Virgin Mary a highlight of poignant tenderness.

Smooth, flexible and instinctive in style, baritone Peter Mattei gives every bit of himself as Tannhäuser’s faithful friend Wofram, his “Song to the Evening Star” - the opera’s most recognisable tune - a superbly heartfelt prayer he bejewels what is an entirely glorious Act 3. Bass Günther Groissböck always impresses, his sonorous vocals resonating like towering forest timbers and colouring Landgraf Hermann with authority and distinctiveness. And as Venus, Mezzo Michelle DeYoung sings with intrigue and richness despite her seductive powers fizzing a little and, what there was, seemingly going to waste on Botha’s own lumpy lusty attempts.

Encircling them, those excellent Met Opera Chorus folk energised and elevated the storyline with a halo of golden sound as nobles, knights, ladies and pilgrims. And down below, the music-making supported the singers nicely with James Levine driving the drama with confidence and thought.

There ended 6 days with long hours of opera’s artistic pleasures soaking the soul but, for now, I need a little time off.

Dialogues des Carmélites: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Dialogues des Carmélites

Francois Poulenc
Metropolitan Opera Nightly Stream
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
31st May, 2020

4.5 stars

Dialogues des Carmélites, Francois Poulenc’s sombre and chilling account based on a convent of nuns sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution - following the decree of 17th August 1792 expelling religious orders from their houses - is one of the 20th century’s great operatic masterpieces. Brought to harrowing life in John Dexter’s intensely focused and powerfully minimal 1977 production, it’s the latest free nightly opera stream from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. I didn’t take a break after all.

Premiered in 1957, ever-present in Poulenc’s perfectly transparent musical realm are ominous interspersions that signal the terror that lies ahead. The work is a palpable study of profound faith and approaching death. Underlying it, is the arduous battle against fear.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin gives the score a patina that glistens and soars, along with thrusting shreds of music seamlessly and assertively driven in. Revival director David Kneuss responds intelligently to the music throughout with emotionally charged direction in marvellously segued scenes across its three acts. Design consists of little more than a cruciform-shaped low platform of wide timber flooring spread over a blackened stage with a few simple props and drops. As simple as Dexter’s production is, the sorts of imagery it etches become the kind of moments memory may never erase.

Like Puccini’s one-act opera Suor Angelica, Dialogues des Carmélites is a showcase for the female voice. That being so, the story gets underway with two aristocratic gentlemen, father and son, who are in conversation over daughter and sister, Blanche de la Force’s withdrawn behaviour. Blanche’s introduction more or less makes her the central figure of the opera but she is surrounded by strongly illustrated characters who equally illuminate the work’s themes.

As Blanche, American soprano Isabel Leonard is a fine actress with an elegant, velvety and ample soprano. From the start, Leonard renders Blanche’s uneasiness and deep introspective nature with a quivering but flowing legato up to entering the Carmelite order. Once inside, Leonard increasingly builds Blanche from naive young woman into a heroine-like figure, attempting to beat her fears as she does so in rapturous voice.

As the old prioress, Madame de Croissy, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila is a tour de force. Unpredictable and dogmatic, Mattila gives her frightening form, yet elicits sympathy when inner pain can no longer be concealed. With a vocal line that twists and turns through highly explosive territory, in Mattila’s performance you feel the prioress’ agony brought on by her impending natural death, as if possessed, in a movingly enunciated scene.

‪As an imperious Sister Marie, Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargil converts mountainous rich sound to creaminess and compassion in another superb performance, her Marie speaking her mind and at the ready with a hand on authority‬, becoming more emotionally soft once a vote on martyrdom is made.

As the novice Sister Constance, who has the premonition that she and Blanche will die young together,‬ Erin Morley ‪brings a sunny personality and her pure, mellifluous soprano. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka is a cordial but firm presence ‬as the new prioress Madame Lidoine and warm, lyrical tenor David Portillo is a convincing presence as Blanche’s concerned brother, ‬ Chevalier de la Force.

The culmination of events comes with the chorus of nuns, stripped of habits and in civilian attire, singing the “Salve Regina” as, one by one, the repeated metallic slice of the guillotine‬ cuts through their extraordinarily beautiful hymn to the Virgin Mary. I sobbed from start to finish. If, in saying, “Perhaps fear is really an illness,” as Blanche had wondered, her faith and courage had cured her in her final moments.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Poles apart in mood, united by excellence, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi bare their soul from University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music

These words are few for an experience felt so strongly. Two Puccini pieces poles apart in mood to take one’s mind off the outside world for a couple of hours opened on Thursday night at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. For the narrow window left before the inevitable shutdown of arts venues, it was a little chance to reflect on the value of opera and the performing arts. Presented by the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music and directed with clarity and thought by internationally accomplished Australian director Andrew Sinclair, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi continue the fine work at play in the The Con’s culture.

Esther Counsel as Suor Angelica and chorus of nuns
Paired as they are, these two one-act operas rather demonstrate how one’s emotions can be tipped or manipulated so easily. In these unexpected and turbulent times the world has suddenly fallen victim to, it seems uncanny that they premiered in New York in 1918 during the influenza pandemic. 

Suor Angelica is a tragedy that speaks in volumes of personal rights being unjustly taken away, both by individual and institutional means while Gianni Schicchi hams up circumstances around death when families jostle for a piece of inheritance. Forget inheritance for a moment, think about the insane greed as the scramble for toilet paper goes ahead. 

‪More importantly, young soprano Esther Counsel sang the title role of Suor Angelica with intense emotional focus and melting vocal technique while the sisters around her coloured her closed abode with infectious personality and excellent voice. Seasoned performer Heather Fletcher’s stiff and frozen hearted Principessa was a storm cloud of impressive vocal drama and accompanied Puccini’s musical shift from floral to thorny with foreboding power.‬ And you couldn’t help but notice combined quality and teamwork between cast and musicians as the score resonated with richness under conductor Richard Davis.‬

Darcy Carroll as Gianni Schicchi, Amelia Wawrzon as
Lauretta and Alastair Cooper-Golec as Rinucco
Outwitting the Donati family in a superbly comical and stylish performance, baritone Darcy Carroll’s latest role as the titular Gianni Schicchi added further stars to his growing list of achievements, showing delightful natural instinct and brilliantly deployed characterful and musical quality in his art. Soprano Amelia Wawrzon was a crisp and sparkling presence and exacting vocal artist as Lauretta, her rendition of “O mio bambino caro” giving the aria’s popularity adorable pleading tenderness. Lover boy Rinuccio was warmly and competently sung by tenor Alastair Cooper-Golec, their final duet an especially impressive moment and mentor Conal Coad is a fluorescent surprise as the most senior Donati in a modern hip, accessible interpretation. 

Given conceptual straightforwardness and effective aesthetic design, both works lit up and beautified the soul. Kudos to the future carriers of the art of opera for their expertise, professionalism, resilience and heart. Never give up!

Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi
University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music 
Malthouse Theatre
Until 15th March 2020

Production Photos: Gregory Lorenzutti

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Tragedy and comedy paired in a cleverly resolved outfit - Livermore Valley Opera's double bill, A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi

A little under two years separated the premiere of Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy (Eine florentinische Tragödie) and Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi - January 1917 and December 1918 respectively. Until Saturday’s opening night, it’s unlikely these two one-act operas ever shared the same stage in a double bill but Livermore Valley Opera make a decidedly good case for presenting what they do have in common - and in notably fine quality. Under the leadership of artistic director Erie Mills, the ominously smouldering weight of Zemlinsky’s twisted tragedy and the high melodrama of Puccini’s black comedy come together in a cleverly resolved outfit.

Michael Day as Guido, Anush Avetisyan as Bianca and
Robert Mellon as Simone in A Florentine Tragedy
One is little known, the other a popular repertoire work. Both were originally set in Florence, A Florentine Tragedy in the 16th and Gianni Schicchi  in the 13th century. They pair sturdily under Layna  Chianakas’ passionate and detailed direction in an evocatively created setting that ingeniously places them both in 1917, somewhere between the time of their compositions. Europe is braced by war but domestic dramas are still being fought.

In what appears to be a marital breakdown in A Florentine Tragedy, travelling textile salesman Simone comes home to find his wife Bianca entertaining the uniformed soldier Guido, the only son of the king. A deeply unsettling journey ensues which Zemlinsky attempts to capture in music of drama and dissonance with snippets of melody that point towards the strains of a Hollywood epic. The results are a little choppy but Chianakas irons them out, making every move engaging and bringing extra eeriness and thrill to a tense love triangle. And without giving much away on the story, based on Oscar Wilde’s unfinished play of the same name, Chianakas might have you think the whole affair was concocted as part of a political assassination. And to tidy up its seemingly ludicrous ending, Bianca’s final action at least gives victory to a woman trapped by misogynistic dominance.

Ensemble, Giannin Schicchi
Gianni Schicchi is a less cerebrally challenging piece and a change of mood that brings on the laughs as the raucous relatives of rich old Buoso Donati gather around his deathbed, pretending to mourn his passing while desperate to find his will.   Nothing could spoil their day more than when they find out the monks have inherited his fortune. In arrives the scheming country peasant Gianni Schicchi, called to come up with a plan to deal with matters by young Rinuccio, who wants to marry Schicchi’s daughter Laurentta, much to the family’s disagreement.

The energy is high and the pasta in generous supply as cunning and greed share the same plate. Chianakas incorporates light and cheesy choreographed movements to extract as much comedy as possible. For both works she has the right mix of talent to help her.

Among them, robust and toasty baritone Robert Mellon is a standout, getting no sympathy as a beastly and sickening Simone in A Florentine Tragedy - role that takes on the bulk of the singing - and a comically scheming, big gesturing and well-presented peasant in the title role of Gianni Schicchi. Tenor Michael Day is another strong performer, first giving a handsome golden glow to Guido in A Florentine Tragedy, then outlining a Rinuccio full of sunshine and youth which radiates with warm lyric splendour in a wonderfully delivered “Firenze è come un albero fiorito”.

Michael Day as Rinuccio and
Anush Avetisyan as Lauretta in
Gianni Schicchi
As Lauretta, sweetness and elegance accompany Anush Avetisyan’s imploring “O mio babbino caro”, one of opera’s most endearing tunes, in Gianni Schicchi but it was her performance in A Florentine Tragedy that encapsulated Bianca’s complexity that really illuminated her dramatic prowess. And then there was fruity mezzo-soprano Deborah Martinez Rosengaus’ snarling and domineering Zita in Gianni Schicchi that added some priceless moments as part of the experience. The remaining cast stepped in line admirably as part of Gianni Schicchi, including Kirk Eichelberger as the heavy drinking family-in-law Betto and Bojan Knezevic as Buoso’s assertive cousin Simone.

Aesthetically, three free-flowing split-level spaces and an entry point defined by interlocking platforms make up Jean Francois Revon’s beautifully focused set design. A background screen features a panoramic view of Florence in its architectural glory and Sean Russell’s lighting mixes the ambience thoughtfully. Loran Watkins’ costumes add the period’s finishing touches convincingly and none of it goes to waste on an ensemble who act with enormous heart and sing excellently throughout. In the pit, Gianni Schicchi was honoured with a reading full of verve under music director Alexander Katsman with his 24 musicians primed expertly in the pit. A Florentine Tragedy, first of the works presented, was captured with the requisite drama despite some patches of timing issues at the Sunday performance.

Livermore, a young city with a population of just under 100,000, is a pretty fortunate place, having both a well-established opera company that can put on a great show and a quality venue to present it in. And it’s conveniently connected to San Francisco so there’s no excuse for Bay Area opera samplers not head on out there and see two very nicely paired pieces.

A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi
Livermore Valley Opera
Bankhead Theater
Until 15th March 2020

Production Photos: Barbara Mallon

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Soprano Angela Meade triumphs as Elizabeth I on the Globe Theatre stage as part director Stephen Lawless' production at L.A. Opera

English director Stephen Lawless’ production of Roberto Devereux, in a staging inspired by London’s Elizabethan era Globe Theatre, was first presented in Toronto by Canadian Opera Company in 2014 and followed with a season at San Francisco Opera, both starring Sondra Radvanovsky as the Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I. It was L.A. Opera’s turn this season but things didn’t quite go according to plan in the lead up to opening night.

Ramón Vargas as Roberto Devereux and
Angela Meade as Queen Elizabeth I
The first hiccup came after allegations of sexual harassment forced Artistic Director Plácido Domingo’s departure from the company as well as his place on the stage as the Duke of Nottingham. Then, days before opening, leading lady Davinia Rodriguez withdrew due to illness. When soprano Angela Meade stepped up to the task at short notice, she sang from the side as choreographer Nicola Bowie went through the moves on opening night. I wasn’t there.

With good fortune, I was at the second performance and it gave everything you could want. Meade was on stage giving her magisterial best and the resonance, depth and finery of Donizetti’s music was realised with beautiful ease and great accommodating effect under conductor Eun Sun Kim’s leadership in the pit. L.A. Opera Orchestra took flight expertly. The strings shimmered and the woodwind in particular floated superbly.

Donizetti’s 1837 opera is an interwoven tragedy of personal desire, suspicion, betrayal and vengeance and the manner in which Lawless emphasises an ailing, desperate queen hellbent on keeping Devereux’s heart adds to the success of a production full of intriguing detail. Lawless brings a refreshing theatrical surprise and novelty to the stage without trivialising the gravitas that underlies the work. Making excellent use of the melodic overture, which includes a tributary snippet of “God Save the Queen”, Lawless energises the work without delay as part of Benoît Dugardyn’s handsome set design - a sturdily built timber form mimicking London’s original Globe Theatre. This make-believe world of a stage within a stage concept serves well as a reminder that facts and truths easily evaporate in the service of artistic and dramatic license, just as Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano’s work bends history for theatrical effect.

Ashley Dixon as Sara and Angela Meade as Queen Elizabeth I
An elderly Elizabeth enters and an unfurling of memories begin around her. Three vitrines roll in, one containing Elizabeth as a child between two others encasing her quarrelling parents Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn - later, the distinct impression you get is that Elizabeth’s issues of trust have their roots back here. Then, Shakespeare pops out of a basket, a ballet sequence slots in delightfully and cut-outs of miniaturised battle ships cross the stage while surtitles give a little history lesson above. Lawless cleverly gives the immediate sense that we are firmly planted in Elizabeth’s domain and it’s from her perspective that we’ll be looking.

As Elizabeth I, Meade takes command with a stamp of her feet, the force of her stick and can wield a sword to drive home a point. But it’s the voice that really exerts the monarch’s power and emotions, imbuing her with huge regal dominance and hints of emotional frailty.‬ Just as extraordinary is Meade’s fullness of sound and sustained richness as she took to the plummeting end of the scale in a manner of meaning business. Most poignant, even heartbreaking, was the uncertainty and conflict Elizabeth encountered not as ruler, but as a woman. After having signed the execution order for the man she regrettably sent to his death, Elizabeth’s ‘performance’ was over. In a dressing-room-like setting, the regal attire hangs over the dresser and Elizabeth appears in her undergarments - wig-less, disoriented and unfulfilled as a woman.

Quinn Kelsey as the Duke of Nottingham
He might not look decades younger than his queen as history tells but tenor Ramón Vargas brings fearlessness and convincing passion to the title role and the queen’s favourite, Devereux. Vargas does so with an armoury of vocal devices, adding to the drama’s momentum and comfortably knocking out the top notes. Ashley Dixon, elegantly voiced with delectably smooth ornamentation, gave an assured performance as Sara while Quinn Kelsey’s warm, molten baritone is best suited to Nottingham’s more compassionate side. That sentiment was in no evidence alongside his wife Sara  and, in his rage in learning of her associations with Devereux, Kelsey occasionally coarsened. The smaller roles are filled with strong performances including Anthony Ciaramitaro as Lord Cecil and Michael J. Hawk as  Sir Walter Raleigh.

It’s one of those works in which the voice rules and the fireworks of coloratura demonstrate superhuman talents not to be missed. Angela Meade is something to witness in the role and just three performances remain to get yourself there.

Roberto Devereux 
L.A. Opera 
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Centre of L.A.
Until 14th March 2020

Production Photos:

Victorian Opera's Salome is a boiling pot of emotions and brilliance: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 24th February 2020.

Opera serves up ample tragedy, crazed characters and violent deaths but few boil over quite like Richard Strauss’ Salome.

Vida Miknevičiūtė as Salome
Combining drama and music in a disturbing brew, evil festers in playwright Oscar Wilde’s twist on a macabre biblical tale. The Judaean princess Salome is spurned by the incarcerated prophet John the Baptist (Jochanaan) for ignoring her lustful approaches. Disturbingly, her stepfather Herodes can’t keep his eye off her, offering Salome anything she desires if she dances for his pleasure. To Herodes’ shock, Salome demands Jochanaan’s head on a platter. 

In one of Victorian Opera’s finest quality productions, director Cameron Menzies gives it genuine potency in a curious multifaceted concept. Herodes looks like a cross between a lion and a clown. He’s a drunkard unfit to rule and his palace, a striking set that mimics the Palais itself, is a world in decay. As both objectifier and objectified, Salome is an identity in flux.

The famous Dance of the Seven Veils barely hints at seduction and is more a character essay in self-doubt, mental pain and humiliation. Tellingly, it highlights the tension between sympathising for a victimised teenager and deploring a demonic victimiser. Truth is seemingly in short supply.

Liane Keegan as Herodias and Ian Storey as Herodes 
The drama unfolds in a thematically dense 100-minute work without feeling overwhelming. The same can be said for conductor Richard Mills’ interpretation of the score, which fired with intensity from a pumped Orchestra Victoria. Sung to Hedwig Lachmann’s German libretto, the voices are awe-inspiring. 

In her Melbourne and role debut, Lithuanian soprano Vida Miknevičiūtė delivered the demanding vocal lines with stunning colour and dramatic engagement. Right up to Salome’s demented end, there are reserves of power and stamina to intoxicate. Welcoming her back to sing more Strauss opera would seem utterly natural. 

Starting offstage, Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi boomed with threatening enormity as Jochanaan. On stage, strung up like a beast, he’s a force to reckon with. English tenor Ian Storey and local mezzo Liane Keegan contrast brilliantly and theatrically as Herodes and his ruffed-up wife Herodias. James Egglestone sings with passion as the besotted Narraboth and the remaining ensemble turn on excellence. 

Victorian Opera
Palais Theatre
Until 27th February 2020


Production Photos: Craig Fuller

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Fidelio returns with a splendid, tangibly felt production from Melbourne Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun in print 7th February 2020

Amongst Beethoven’s vast output, he composed just one opera, Fidelio, a sort of paean to bravery and determination - qualities increasingly demonstrated by Melbourne Opera in recent years. 

Melbourne Opera Chorus in Fidelio
It’s also a ‘rescue opera’ in which the young woman Leonore disguises herself as a male and gets employment as the errand boy Fidelio in a jail where her husband Florestan has been unjustly imprisoned.    

From director Hugh Halliday, the original late 18th century European revolutionary setting is eschewed for a contemporized account. What transpires is a tangibly felt production with a spotlight on generic political hotspots, inhumane detention and a little of our own backyard as part of Andrew Bellchambers’ grimy-walled, dank and barbed-wired environment.

A comic element emerges early when Marzelline, daughter of the jailer Rocco, ignores the romantic advances of his assistant Jaquino and, complicating circumstances, falls in love with Fidelio. Perhaps it’s not implausible that Fidelio could maintain fooling everyone with her disguise - even a starved and disoriented Florestan when she finally recognises him in his cell.

Kirstin Sharpin as Fidelio and
Brad Daley as Florestan
Some shortcomings in the libretto aside, all is assuaged by the suspense, terror and hope that infiltrate Beethoven’s score. Textures and tempos integrated vividly under conductor Anthony Negus. And the MO Orchestra have never sounded more splendid in the Athenaeum.

In the title role, rich and velvety soprano Kirstin Sharpin punches high, her Fidelio undaunted by the risks and her vocal expressivity in compelling form. She leads an impressive cast of seasoned singers and young artists. 

Smoky bass Adrian Tamburini is an especially strong and cushioning presence as Rocco. It’s a long wait for the light to shine on tenor Brad Daley but he captures Florestan’s plight with extraordinary grit. Young ascending star Rebecca Rashleigh is utterly radiant as Marzelline and Louis Hurley’s handsome vocals add greatly to nerdish Jaquino. Warwick Fyfe is chilling as corrupt prison governor Pizarro although the decibels could come down and the chorus are glorious, notably as the men trudge convincingly through Act One’s Prisoner’s Chorus. 

In this, Beethoven’s 250th birthday year, Fidelio will have more exposure than usual and, as Melbourne Opera shows, it can be seen with a wider lens.

Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 13th February 2020
Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo
23rd February 2020


Production Photos: Robin Halls

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

As One makes its Australian premiere in a biting and heartwarming production from Gertrude Opera: Herald Sun Review

Published in Herald Sun Melbourne, 28th January 2020 in edited form

Opera has a history of gender-bending roles in the service of art but it has taken until the 21st century for a work to zero in on the issue of gender itself. Poignantly achieved in American composer Laura Kaminsky’s 75-minute 2014 chamber opera, As One, it’s also the first time the protagonist is transgender.

Marie Campbell as Hannah Before
It’s the story of Hannah and told through her eyes as she grows up as a boy, eventually understanding that she cannot identify living with the gender she was born with. Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s libretto map her journey chronologically through episodes sprinkled with wit and generous with feeling.

There is Hannah Before (Joshua Erdelyi-Götz) and Hannah After (Marie Campbell), baritone and mezzo-soprano shadowing each other through her internal struggles. From first realising he was not like other boys, then realising he was not alone and onto final acceptance, life is sung with meaning and vigour.

Early on, you can sense the fire within as a vocally muscular Erdelyi-Götz is determined to conceal himself in a male stereotype. A rich and luminous-voiced Campbell shares a touching ballad-like song in one of the work’s highlights when Hannah gets her first kiss from a young man. And the horror of assault is powerfully intertwined by the pair who together notch up a couple of splendid performances.

Joshua Erdelyi-Götz) as Hannah Before and
Marie Campbell as  Hannah After
Written for string quartet and two voices across 15 songs, Kaminsky’s music is an evocative experience that raises each scene thoughtfully while constructing an embracing acoustic collage. Conductor Alexandra Enyart gave brisk and pulsating rhythm to the score and director Linda Thompson’s clever and gripping approach highlighted the work’s innate naturalism. Overall, it resonated via a most simple staging that includes scene-identifying film footage.

Hats off to Gertrude Opera for staging this biting and heart-warming work in its Australian premiere as part of Midsumma Festival. The world won’t implode if we open our hearts and minds. Like Hannah says, when she was a paperboy cycling around with a woman’s blouse worn under her jacket, “The papers still get delivered.”

As One
Gertrude Opera
Until 1st February 2020


Production Photos: Sarah Clarke