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

Friday, January 17, 2020

An all round strong cast fire up the latest revival of director Gale Edwards' Berlin La bohème for Opera Australia

Several revivals later, since its premiere in 2011, there are more and more aspects to admire in director Gale Edwards’ La bohème for Opera Australia. In its current season at the Sydney Opera House, revival director Liesel Badorrek has done her part well in making  a compelling case why the last months of the Weimar Republic in 1930s Berlin prove a fitting adaptation of librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s 1840s Paris setting in the city’s Latin Quarter. 
Karah Son as Mimì and Kang Wang as Rodolfo

Acts 1 and 2 are alive and entertaining before the work really begins to tug with emotional impact in Acts 3 and 4. In Act 1’s voluminous polygonal space, the four bohemians are introduced as individuals struggling with their art and peppy in their interactions before a Christmas Eve encounter between the poet Rodolfo and his neighbour Mimì spawns instant attraction. In Act 2, Cafe Momus is a cabaret theatre of free-spiritedness and decadence where all classes mix. It’s a visual stunner that rotates into place as part of Brian Thomson’s spiegeltent-inspired set design, Julie Lynch’s highly individualistic costumes and John Rayment’s thoughtful lighting. 

For this La bohème, Edwards provides the lovers with a poignant and breathing canvas on which aspects of Puccini’s opera tellingly surface. Love blooms on all kinds of backgrounds and love locked in permanency is no guarantee. Mimì and Rodolfo’s new love is on shaky ground and it becomes just as much a struggle to find a way forward as it is to keep a fire burning in winter to keep warm. Edwards reflects that picture in the political atmosphere that seeps into Berlin with Nazism’s presence. Although some of the details could be questioned, it’s a concept that works uncannily well with both storytelling and music, especially in Acts 3’s dark and brooding setting at the city toll gate and leading into Act 4 at the bohemians’ abode where Mimì’s dying moments are shared amongst love and friends.  
Kang Wang as Rodolfo, Michael Lampard as Schaunard,
Samuel Dundas as Marcello and Richard Anderson as Colline 

It certainly helped that South Korean soprano Karah Son, as Mimì, sang with remarkable expressive range and conviction and young Australian Chinese tenor Kang Wang soared high with a handsomely supported sound full of passion as Rodolfo. At this performance two weeks since opening, the pair turned their candlelit introductions into a melting start. Though not the showstopper it can ultimately be, the voices were vibrant and smooth but the best was to come with heart and music beating in impressively nuanced form. Together they made a touching scene when, in Act 3, they agree to stay together until the spring, singing like they lived the experience and maintaining that magic to the end.

Son, who has appeared regularly with Opera Australia in recent years as Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly and Liù in Turandot, sings with both ease and power, her elegant and firm soprano giving Mimì as strong a resolve as possible in the face of ailing physical health. Judging by his Opera Australia debut, Wang, a former Met Opera Lindemann Young Artist, a finalist in the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, has a big career ahead. Particularly amiable as the self-confessed jealous Rodolfo, Wang’s sense of character and vocal control combined most attractively.

In fact, Rodolfo’s motley mates are all a likeable and bonded lot and Wang’s rapport with them shows great believability, notably with his friend and painter Marcello, an athletically physical and vocally fortified Samuel Dundas. Michael Lampard’s theatrics as a flamboyant Schaunard is a precious sight, singing with polish and flair to match, and Richard Anderson’s broad resonant bass made for a grounded and sympathetic Colline, his Act 4 “coat aria” an affecting, funereal-like march before Mimì’s last breaths. 

The cast of Opera Australia's La bohème, 2020
As a cabaret sensation, sparking soprano Julie Lea Goodwin is a radiant presence, raising her leg and a glass in seductive and magnetic style as Musetta. Goodwin pairs brilliantly with Dundas, too, making fireworks of their on again off again relationship, both entertaining and piteous and a perfectly contrasted sideshow to Mimì and Rodolfo’s travails. Graeme Macfarlane is a suitably snug fit as the licentious landlord Benoît, a role he is well accustomed with and the Opera Australia Chorus and Children’s Chorus sang an exciting treat. And there was nothing to fault in Tahu Matheson’s intelligent, drama-savvy conducting as he paced the action splendidly, assisted by an on form Opera Australia Orchestra.

The only unpleasant thing was the sexagenarian sitting beside me who first dozed off onto my shoulder, had the stench of far too much alcohol and muttered something or other now and then to his female companion. But his enthusiastic applause did at least sum up the strength of the evening. 

La bohème
Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 30th January 2020

Production Photos:

Monday, January 6, 2020

A triumphant return for Helena Dix in Melbourne Opera's Norma: Herald Sun Review


Published online in Melbourne's Herald Sun 18th September 2019

The High Priestess of the Druids who takes the title role of Bellini’s Norma is a complex sort. Norma is defiant, troubled, compassionate, venomous, forgiving and self-sacrificing. In private, she is shaken mother of two children to the enemy, Roman proconsul Pollione. Traitor to her people, Norma’s turbulent trajectory is adorned by insanely challenging and divine vocal music, often considered the most demanding role in the repertory. At Melbourne Opera, she is given tremendous presence, superbly nuanced colour and staying power in soprano Helena Dix.

Helena Dix as Norma
Returning triumphantly to Melbourne Opera, Dix is pivotal to the success of director Suzanne Chaundy’s production. Having covered the role at New York’s Met Opera, Dix’s preparedness and capabilities are in striking evidence. Her agile and wide-ranging voice touches the text with faithfulness. Her meditatively imploring “Casta diva” is only the start of many highlights to come.

Dix is surrounded by a fine cast. The duets Dix shares with Jacqueline Dark’s sumptuously sung Adalgisa, virginal priestess in love with Pollione and who guides the spirit of compassion, are moments to melt in. A tad more tonal shading wouldn’t go astray but hefty tenor Samuel Sakker is steadfastly and solidly sung as a brutal Pollione. Expansive bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, as Norma’s heavy-minded father Oroveso, is an impressive cornerstone in the midst of a fervently sung chorus while conductor Raymond Lawrence leads with an acute feel for the drama. A few stray notes from the pit will need some tidying up.

Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as Oroveso, Samuel Sakker as Pollione
and Helena Dix as Norma
Betrayal and deceit are the key drivers of Bellini’s tragedy. Tension comes in handfuls of opera storytelling’s not uncommon indecisiveness, which Chaundy resolves competently around the leading trio. Not so clearly conveyed is a concept that needs the program’s notes to be fully understood. 

Starting, it feels like an abstract take on its ancient setting during the Roman occupation of Gaul. Then, assorted camouflage and semi-automatics come out and Pollione appears in WWII military uniform. Chaundy’s construct of Druidism’s 20th century revival as a neo-pagan religion might not convince but Dale Ferguson’s design is beautiful on the eye and there’s boundlessly thrilling music to savour.

Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 24th September, 2019

4 stars

Production Photos: Robin Halls

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Royal Melbourne Philharmonic's Christmas Carol excellence in the heat of the night at St Paul's Cathedral

It was still over 40°C when Royal Melbourne Philharmonic presented a splendid evening of Carols in the Cathedral in a packed St Paul’s that easily held the heat at bay on Friday night. Just as well because the RMP Orchestra and 150 or so choristers from the RMP Choir, Melbourne University Choral Society and the Australian Children’s Choir had a comprehensive and demanding program to deliver. And they mastered it with consummate excellence for the occasion.

Royal Melbourne Philharmonic's Carols in the Cathedral 
Led by conductor Andrew Wailes, who brought generously warm and spacious feeling to the music, both the familiar and unfamiliar combined in a beautifully curated two-part program. Traditional carols such as “Once in Royal David's City”, “The First Nowell”, “O, Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” resonated gloriously in arrangements regal and heroic with polished brass and explosive percussion by English composer Sir David Willcocks. For these, the audience was invited to sing along. 

So too they were for Australian William James’ “Christmas Day” which concisely brings home the notion of Christmas far from the Holy Land and the wintery northern hemisphere. Heart-warming reflections by Julie Houghton and Roland Rocchiccioli (Jacinta Dennett providing gleaming accompaniment on harp), highlighted the significance of Christmas and religious expression. 

Tenor Louis Hurley and soprano Lee Abrahmsen studded the night with radiant moments which included Hurley’s sensitive colouring of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Abrahmsen’s powered and broad-ranged plushness in “The Holy City”. James Morley’s wonderful cello accompaniments were mellow and confident, particularly in Hurley and Abrahmsen’s finely sung “Panis angelicus”.

The children charmed with a swathe of spirited and joyously sung offerings such as “Sussex Carol”, the sweet and lulling Welsh song, “Suo-Gân” and the rhythmic and crystal-sounding beauty of “Laudate”. A stirring “Silent Night” and the heavenly sweep of the adult voices in “All My Heart, This Night Rejoices” were other highlights in a concert that let music wrap the meaning of Christmas into a gift as a reminder that the act of giving can extend in all manner of ways.

Carols in the Cathedral 
Royal Melbourne Philharmonic 
St Paul’s Cathedral 
Friday 20th December, 8.30pm
Saturday 21st December, 3pm and 8pm


Photo: Martin Philbey