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