Saturday, December 2, 2017

A strong and committed cast but Pinchgut Opera's reimagined The Coronation of Poppea misses its potential.


Making opera contemporarily relevant is at the forefront of pretty much any opera company today wishing to promote and vivify the art form. More easily able than many, Claudio Monteverdi's final opera, The Coronation of Poppea - premiered some 375 years ago - remains acutely relevant today and survives as a potent example of drama that simmers, boils, confronts and intrigues in its story of lust for power, sexual obsessions and ruthless dominance. In Pinchgut Opera's new production directed by Mark Gaal, wonderfully sung and boldly conceived as it is, attempts to reimagine the story's ancient Rome setting in a modern day context don't, however, always pay off so convincingly.

Helen Sherman and Jake Arditti
Power struggles, manipulative tactics and corruption exist in all spheres and levels of society but Gaal's interpretation creates an unpalatable friction and raises question marks over Giovanni Busenello's libretto - sung in Italian and surtitled in an eloquent English translation at odds with what is seen on stage.

Monteverdi's work is a sensational account of the Roman emperor Nero’s (Jake Arditti) abuse of position and blind pursuit of love for his mistress Poppea (Helen Sherman). Poppea's ambitions of power aggravate the Empress Ottavia (Natalie Christie Peluso) who is gravely aware of the vulnerable position she is in and who counteracts with a scheme to have Poppea disposed of. Woven through, the goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, vie for supremacy.

Here, a mighty hip and bleached-haired Nero takes on the aura of a teen pop star mixed up in a life of sex, drugs and violence. Surrounded by his hoodlum mates who roam the confines of a stark, often coldly lit, concreted world (sets by Charles Davis and lighting by Ross Graham), it seems a confused take on the work's adaptational potential.

As Nero, Jake Arditti exhibits much colour and lightning flashes of dynamism with his rich and lively countertenor. And there's much happening to excite him in the process. Soon after Nero makes his entrance with a hooker-like, dangerous-looking Poppea, he knocks down a man, who Poppea straddles, then crawls across him seductively to remove his belt from under Poppea's loins. Later, partying and cocaine-fixed after ordering the death of his philosophising adviser Seneca, Nero is pleasurably sucked off by one of his men during which I don't recall what the music was doing. Gaal certainly highlights Nero's salacious pleasures yet Nero doesn't cut the figure of authority as the Roman emperor in the text reads.

Natalie Christie Peluso
The luscious, full-bodied mezzo-soprano of Helen Sherman gives a striking, attractively hued and phrased voice to Poppea. What begins as a grungy windowless world oddly becomes a glitzy fashionable one by end with Poppea making a surprise transformation into what looked like a celebrity model for a pageant coronation. Sherman stepped into the limelight radiantly for the opera's final melting duet with Arditti - "Pur ti miro/Pur ti godo" - in their only tender and restrained encounter without groping each other and, while doing so, paired lusciously in voice. Nero had secured his beauty and Poppea her position, precarious as that would be.

Perhaps if the libretto was completely reworked to reflect the characters portrayed, a more easy coexistence of drama, setting and text would have resulted. In this setting, I was seeing one possibility taking a topical Weinstein-like approach concerning alleged abuse of power and women which life is never short of.

Thankfully, Arditti and Sherman are part of a strong and committed cast that provide the propulsion needed. Smouldering baritone David Greco's vocal heft makes a notably firm standout as Seneca with his inviting and authoritative performance and ornamental touches that waft in precisely placed curls. Excitingly animated tenor Kanen Breen - indisputably shaping up as one of Australia's hottest theatrical talents - struts with towering height, form and delectable knowingness and confidence as a transvestite Arnalta, Poppea's subordinate and confidante.

Natalie Christie Peluso is another solid link as she spectacularly delineates the two widely contrasting roles - the venomous and vengeful Ottavia and more reserved, alarmingly naive Drusilla - to which her dark and expressively charged soprano she employs for Ottavia is brightened and softened as she portrays Drusilla. Countertenor Owen Willetts comfortably conveyed the passions and turns of the swooning Ottone who is in love with Ottavia in leaps of rich and fleshy warmth.

Kanen Breen as Arnalta
In the twin smaller roles as Seneca's friend Famigliari III (likely a little more than a friend) and Tribuno, bass baritone Jeremy Kleeman's resonating and firm vocal presence are an ear-catching luxury, as is Roberta Diamond's delightfully sweet soprano that emanates from her fallen-on-hard-times Amore as she follows love's triumph when least it is deserved and highlighting how love doesn't always behave.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes didn't carry through with the force and conviction of their usual breathtakingly layered textures on opening night. A few misses didn't escape notice, including some late shaky trumpeting, but the several open orchestral passages were consistently realised in top form. Conducting from harpsichord, overall, Artistic Director Erin Helyard's mixed and effective tempi provided ongoing momentum, more so in the second part but I couldn't help but feel that the music often seemed overtaken by an indulgent interpretation that attempts to make the story's relevance feel real but, instead, strangled it in theatrical melange.


The Coronation of Poppea
Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 6th December.



Production photos: Brett Boardman

Friday, November 17, 2017

Opera Australia's The Merry Widow opens with a clear emphasis on razzmattazz in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/lifestyle/melbourne/the-merry-widow-finds-new-festivity/news-story/e72bad969ac99f7979b0099cd99aa27d
Published online at Herald Sun on 16th November and in print 17th November, 2017.



On this especially festive-like evening when the country voted #YES Opera Australia’s new production of Franz Lehár’s effervescent 1905 operetta, The Merry Widow, seemed the perfect compliment to open the spring season.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna in Opera Australia's The Merry Widow
Directed and choreographed with endless razzmatazz by Graeme Murphy and moved a smidgen ahead to the 1920s, it’s a glitzy Art Deco spectacle that frames the story of rags-to-riches young widow, Hanna Glawari. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish sets and Jennifer Irwin’s haute couture fashions are, at the very least, testament to the remarkable artisans behind the scenes.

Hanna’s millions are the fictitious Grand Duchy of Pontevedro’s only hope of escape from bankruptcy but she’s kicking up her heels in Paris to a chorus of swooning hopefuls. Will former lover Danilo, living it up his own way at Maxim’s, pluck up the courage to say “I love you” and overcome the pride that keeps him from marrying Hanna for her money? Personalities might be bruised but tragedy is avoided.

A large cast and intricate intrigues keep the plot afloat despite the cross-section of messy accents and high melodrama. Justin Fleming’s new English translation is interpreted with bawdiness over the scandalous on a canvas more brash New York than elegant Paris. It’s fun but the innuendos begin to tire and the razzle-dazzle often overwhelms character sculpting.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna with the grizettes in The Merry Widow
We also no longer have the great Joan Sutherland on hand to sing her Hanna and the nostalgic ‘Pontevedrian’ folk song Vilja but, as a world-class opera company, why the patchily balanced miking? Internationally acclaimed soprano Danielle de Niese’s much-anticipated return to Melbourne was highly compromised, taking the spotlight more for her vivacious dancing, from waltz to cancan, than hearing her gorgeously smooth and luminous voice. Alexander Lewis, as the vacillating Danilo, pairs splendidly with de Niese, his golden tone put to superb use at the top notes. Soaring in the subplot, rich tenor John Longmuir is the big standout as lovestruck Camille among voices that generally sat below the company’s usual excellent standards on opening night.

Orchestra Victoria impressed under Vanessa Scammell’s persuasive conducting and, #YES, the stage celebrated at curtain call.


Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 25th November

3 -stars


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, November 12, 2017

From Melbourne Opera, intellectual and visceral strength greet the long overdue Australian premiere of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux


Make no bones about it, as an independent company that receives no government funding, Melbourne Opera's 2017 season has delivered a degree of consistency and excellence that places it firmly amongst the city's well-funded cultural institutions. First, it was a jolly good HMS Pinafore in March. Then, a riveting Lohengrin followed in August that demonstrated an increasing ambitiousness that now comes with proven flexibility. Finally, on Saturday evening, Melbourne Opera capped off the year with a rave-worthy production of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, in its long overdue Australian premiere, to complete the company's study of the composer's Tudor trilogy. Directed by Suzanne Chaundy, who likewise directed Maria Stuarda in 2015 and Anna Bolena in 2016, what is evident is a ripened sense of detail and quality that surpasses the former two works with both its intellectual and visceral strength.

Helena Dix as Elizabeth I in Act 3 of Roberto Devereux
If it wasn't for the high standard of vocal output, the retina-stimulating force of the sumptuous period-inspired costumes by Jenny Tate (on loan from the Opera Australia wardrobe) might have overwhelmed. Even with the same aesthetic employed in the previous two works, Christina Logan-Bell's effective and beautifully crafted design that features the Tudor rose motif and Lucy Birkinshaw's evocative lighting made for an even more eye-catching setting that pushes towards a vividly stylised hyper-realism and compliments a story that pushes history's boundaries of truth.

Embroiling emotional sentiments with political judgement, an ageing, unmarried and vain Queen Elizabeth I has cemented her status as a monarch but cannot conceal her frustration as a woman, spurned by her 'favourite', a man a third her age, Robert, Earl of Essex.

When I saw Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sing the taxing role of Elizabeth at New York's Metropolitan Opera, she was hailed with huge and deserved applause. I ruminated. As her understudy, how would Australian-born Helena Dix have navigated the role, one resplendent with the thrilling ornamented singing that characterises the bel canto repertoire?

Helena Dix as Elizabeth and Henry Choo as Robert
Melbourne now has the evidence of Dix's grandeur. In a performance that is interpreted with not only vocal prowess but done so all the way down to the fingertips, local audiences are further acquainted with Dix's formidable stage presence and dramatic capability after impressing as Elsa in Lohengrin. Dix imbues Elizabeth with wealthy helpings of character without limiting her to the dismissive hand of imperiousness. A cheeky flirtatious tickle of a squire's beard as she makes her entrance in the Great Hall at Westminster, a girlish self-consciousness with the arrival of Robert and her often temperamental swings establish a firm portrait inbuilt with ageless emotional identity and ageing physical form.

Of her vocal exhibition, Dix locked together a dazzling spectrum of expression from sweet musings to defiance and ultimate despair with seemingly effortless and arabesque melodic turns. Sung in English, there was nowhere to look but at a queen reigning over the stage. And it's not often you hear coloratura that contains bursts of character and meaning that drive the drama rather than simply providing exciting vocal fireworks - and an audience that engagingly responds to it on the way.

Henry Choo as Robert & Danielle Calder as Sara
Alongside Dix, more familiar faces at Melbourne Opera honoured her presence in some of their best performances yet, delivering both compelling acting and singing. Fighting off charges of treason as Robert in the titular role, increasingly charismatic tenor Henry Choo reinforces the complex dynamics in his character's liaisons and presents a passionate, sturdy and full-bodied vocal vehicle that is polished with conviction. Choo's diction is superb, adding great appeal to his performance and his various duets are well-calibrated but it's in his final scene, as Robert awaits execution, where raw emotion escapes in one of the night's poignant highlights.

With her privileged position, noble femininity and pure top notes, creamy mezzo-soprano Danielle Calder is exquisite as Sara, Robert's lover and the queen's rival. Warm baritone Phillip Calcagno journeys through his initial backing for his friend Robert and subsequent betrayal by his wife Sara with focused and natural step as the Duke of Nottingham. In minor roles, Jason Wasley and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i add a tier of sound support as Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh respectively. Gorgeously harmonised with a spring in delivery, a well-prepared Melbourne Opera Chorus light the evening splendidly despite their sometimes incomprehensible content.

It takes a while acclimatising to the Athenaeum's dry acoustic but, apart from an occasional blemish, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra made a fine soundscape, conducted with vigour by Greg Hocking. Once the perplexing overture is over, Donizetti's wonderful dramatic momentum and transitions take flight. Of note, Act 3's opening string playing produced a breathtaking introduction to Robert's isolation and the timpani and piccolo always amazed with their well-executed presence.

Melbourne Opera's year is almost over and the signposts point towards potentially even greater rewards for its artists and audience in 2018. It's time our government recognises that too.


Roberto Devereux
Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 18th October, 2017


Production photos: Robin Halls

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Australian Brandenberg Orchestra's musically engaging and curious three-course early opera selection


Kudos to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra for their 2017 season programming which included a stage-directed production of Handel's Messiah in February and for having just concluded a run of seven performances in Sydney and Melbourne of three contrasting early operatic works that came under the title Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach. Created in a pastiche-like manner by Artistic Director Paul Dyer, Bittersweet Obsessions courses through a lament, a tragedy and a comedy via Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, followed by J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata.

Jakob Bloch Jespersen as Tancredi and Natasha Wilson as Cloirinda
The final performance which I attended was propelled by a team of strong international singers who appeared in various roles - soprano Natasha Wilson from New Zealand, tenors American Karim Sulayman and Australian Spencer Darby, and Danish bass Jakob Bloch Jespersen. Each 'scene' was preceded by period pieces that presumably aimed to seam the three works together, all demonstrating the high quality musicianship and warm musical fabric the orchestra achieves. Dyer conducted from harpsichord and organ with notable regard for his soloists before him.

Kapsberger's Toccata Arpeggiata set the atmosphere going in Scene I with its eerie and tumultuous shades to introduce the brief snapshot that Lamento della Ninfa gives on a nymph's distress after being betrayed by her lover. In a billowing white gown, Wilson brought a poignancy to the sighing melodies with her attractive, smooth and relaxed soprano. As shepherds, Sulayman, Darby and Bloch Jespersen added distinctive harmony in their interjections and observances as they all passed through a pastoral setting that consisted of a field of wheat backed by a lofty, full-height copy of Claude Lorrain's pastoral scene, Ascanius Shooting The Stag of Sylvia.

Deliciously evocative without overwhelming, Charlotte Mungomery's design, Genevieve Graham's appropriately delineated costumes and John Rayment's subdued lighting set a striking start under Constantine Costi's perfectly sensitive direction.

The gloriously featured zipping violins and strummed backing of Falconieri's lively Ciaccona, followed by a dignified interpretation of Monteverdi's overture from Il Ritorno d'Ulisse In Patria, opened Scene II's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda thrillingly. Claude Lorrain's tranquil setting fell to reveal a tri-level scaffolded structure. On it, the inconceivable and bitter tragedy of Clorinda's death in combat by her lover Tancredi was played out in slow-gestured stylistic movement and magnified more physically by aikido performers Andrew Sunter and Melanie Lindenthal on the (wheat)field of battle. Again, the creative and visual effect cut through splendidly, with Clorinda's death, marked by a cascading cloth of blood-red fabric from high, a particularly powerful moment that proceeded the punctuated metallic clash of swords that percussionist Adam Cooper-Stanbury reproduced wonderfully amongst many other detailed sound effects.

Bloch Jespersen was firm, robust and commanding as the Christian knight Tancredi with Wilson's ethereal and fine glassy soprano echoing the story's haunting ominousness. But it was Sulayman who sang the major part as Testo (the Text) the narrator, done so with passion and conviction but with most assuredness and warmth in moderate-paced passages.

After interval, Bach's comic Coffee Cantata, on the other hand, arrived in Scene III as a somewhat curious anomaly to the deftly resolved Monteverdi works. Opening the scene and though captivatingly played - concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen illuminated the florid lines superbly on violin - the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 4 seemed to break the spell cast by the first two scenes with its widely familiar tune.

K. Sulayman, J. Bloch Jespersen and N. Wilson in Coffee Cantata
Familiarity also appeared with the stage transformed into a trendy cafe run by a hipster barista who Sulayman added a little campness to. The lightness edged on the side of the ridiculous with Coffee Cantata becoming an exaggerated and over-acted distraction, as if buzzing with an excess of caffeine. Based around the young woman Liechen's addiction to coffee and what she's prepared to do without in order to have it, it was difficult working out how her flapping fur-coated, selfie-snapping behaviour belonged there.

As a spoiled, inelegant and recalcitrant Liechen, Wilson nonetheless demonstrated the range, flexibility and shading of her soprano beautifully. At ease in her comic skin, Wilson's melodic sweetness soared delectably in her central aria, "Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee susse" / Ah! how sweet coffee tastes" as if seemingly fed by the numerous spoonfuls of sugar she took. In between the need for a nicotine fix to calm his see-sawing parenting, Bloch Jespersen sang firmly as her unfortunate father Schlendrian. Dyer fuelled the music with a liveliness that the orchestra played with great appeal and depth.

More like three district tableaux - touching, entertaining and musically engaging as the evening was - Bittersweet Obsessions was advertised with the expectation of "three timeless tales that follow one woman’s journey through the bitter and sweet of life". That was always going to be a decent challenge to overcome. It was more a case of the one woman, in this case soprano Natasha Wilson, embodying three distinct characters on her own operatic journey. Still, the vivid theatrical portrayal and overall interpretation was a welcome addition to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's repertoire and a feature that the stage will hopefully be utilised for again.



Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
City Recital Hall, Sydney
25th October - 1st November 2017
Melbourne Recital Centre
4th & 5th November 2017


Production photos:


Sunday, October 29, 2017

An energised and entertaining show but love at first sight doesn't quite gel in The Production Company's Brigadoon


Heading into its 20th year, The Production Company have been nurturing local musical theatre talent and bringing Broadway entertainment to the stage in consistent sparkling form. In this year's final production of the season, the company's characteristic verve and high standards similarly shone in Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe's (music) 1947 romantic fantasy, Brigadoon. But something prevented me from feeling completely absorbed by its quaint frothy tale despite director Jason Langley's fresh update, Cameron Mitchell's exhilarating choreography and musical director Michael Tyack's vivacious reign over the gorgeous music-making from the 21-member orchestra.

Genevieve Kingsford as Fiona and cast of Brigadoon
For modern eyes, it's probably unsurprising that everyone seemed a little odd in Brigadoon, the mystical Scottish village that reawakens and appears once every 100 years for just one day. In its story -  from the creative duo who went on to pen Gigi, My Fair Lady and Camelot - adventurous New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Rohan Browne) and Jeff Douglas (Luke Joslin) first seem to think so when they stumble on this quirky village in the Scottish Highlands stuck in another time. From afar, at least from my perspective in the dress circle, Fiona MacLaren (Genevieve Kingsford) might seem its oddest, the pretty village maiden who zooms in on Tommy in a love-at-first-sight encounter.

If we are to believe in love at first sight's inexplicability, I wanted to believe that there's credibility to its magic on stage. Lerner's book wastes no time in setting the scene but falling desperately in love is different to looking hopelessly desperate, which we see in Kingsford's portrayal. Was I taking it far too seriously in this lighthearted escape fuelled mainly by good helpings of comic charm and adrenalised action? I don't think so because believing that Fiona and Tommy's relationship is completely based on love forms the core of the story, not on some ulterior motive which appears to permeate through Fiona's desperation. If that was unequivocally established, the comedy could run with abandon.

Garishly bright-orange-wigged, Kingsford is a talented and magnetic artist to watch and she sang with a rich and attractive sound on opening night, though there were times the top of the voice lost shape at full power. Browne's was a passionate and sensitive portrayal of Tommy, a handsome and modern metrosexual who he gave an impressive sunshiny timbre to. In duet with Kingsford, Tommy and Fiona shared a superbly sweetened interpretation of Act 1's "The Heather on The Hill" but the most vocally seductive and poignant moment the pair melted together in was to come in Act 2's "From This Day On", when Tommy decides he needs to leave Brigadoon.

Nancye Hayes, Genevieve Kingsford and Rohan Browne
In entertaining and cracking comic form, Joslin drew many a genuine laugh playing the laid back and jokester Jeff and made a memorable moment of his disinterest in the largely embraced village strumpet, Meg. Depicting her, suitably voluptuous-voiced Elise McCann gave an unashamed dazzling sauciness and polished up the melodious pair of songs, Act 1's "The Love Of My Life" and Act 2's "My Mother's Wedding Day", with exceptional appeal.

There was not only Fiona's one-eyed desperation and Meg's looseness, but also Maggie's (Karla Tonkich) creepy obsession with Harry and Tommy's blonde and shallow socialite New York fiancé, Miranda Ashton (Adele Parkinson). I couldn't get the solid supply of pretty young faces but unflattering female portraits hanging in the show's gallery out of my mind. If you're older and made up to be plainer, you get a little more substance and two of Australia's esteemed musical theatre performers made certain of that. Sally Bourne gave warmhearted and imposing presence to Fiona's mother Alice and Nancye Hayes was both commanding and approachable as the village matriarch Mrs Forsythe, who Langley gives clever elevation to by replacing her with the original book's schoolmaster Mr. Lundie.

Other excellent performances came from Matthew Manahan as the excitable bridegroom Charlie and his bonny bride Jean, Fiona's sister, Stefanie Jones. Young talented artist Joel Granger shaded the work enormously as the disturbed Harry and the well-experienced Stephen Hall was strong and expressive in the role as his father Archie Beaton.

Luke Joslin as Jeff and Elise McCann as Meg
The ensemble singing was driven with gusto, occasionally overly so, and the dance routines were a series of energised spectacles - Act 1's Sword Dance and Reel and Act 2's Chase, representative of both the traditional and cheesy. Then there was Browne's streamlined moonwalking dance steps to provide contrast. And the solemnity of Harry's funeral with bagpipe accompaniment was heart wrenching. A seat in the stalls would be preferable. From above, the stage can look a tad bare.

At first I was perplexed by the sky-full of crosses that hung above the stage as part of designer Christina Smith's simple and effective set. Then it dawned on me - to protect Brigadoon from being changed by the outside world. It also added an eeriness that is further sensed in the wooden stepped structure in the town's square, a platform that supports the wedding celebration as easily as it could the gallows. Isaac Lummis' costumes are delineated in a thoughtfully detailed spread of colour and Matt Scott's extensive lighting palette captured the various moods wonderfully.

As the wise Mrs Forsythe says, "When you love someone deeply, anything is possible." And as Brigadoon presents it, that can be both a celebration (for Tommy and Fiona) and a curse (as befalls Harry). The appeal of Langley's production is that even when the buzzing entertainment is over, it leaves a little left over to ponder.


Brigadoon
The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 5th November.


Production photos: Jeff Busby

A splendid evening showcasing young operatic talent in The Herald Sun Aria Final: Herald Sun Review

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/lifestyle/melbourne/herald-sun-aria-a-splendid-view-of-opera-talent/news-story/45835067188ef33793dd6689397b66bd

Published online at Herald Sun on 26th October and in print on 27th October, 2017


In a splendid evening presided over by informative and jocular MC, Christopher Lawrence of ABC Classic FM, the diversity, expression and beauty of the classical voice shone brightly at the 93rd Herald Sun Aria final. For the distinguished panel Richard Mills, Roxane Hislop and Suzanne Johnston, judging the five finalists wasn’t an easy task. Mills rightly pointed out that they’re all winners and the competition is part of the ongoing journey.

Countertenor Maximillian Riebl
For countertenor Maximilian Riebl, that journey is now injected with added prestige of joining celebrated winners that include Kiri Te Kanawa and Nicole Car.

Riebl opened the competition strong, poised like an athlete for “Dove sei, amato bene?” from Handel’s Rodelinda. Riebl brought an affecting and contemplative interpretation with the mesmerising sound of the sustained and perilously high falsetto, his voice a generously buttressed one, effortlessly smooth and firm at the top.

Four other finalists followed, each singing one aria in the first part of the program and, in the same order, presenting a second in part two.

Agile tenor Michael Petruccelli’s “È un folle, e un vile affetto” from Handel’s Alcina came intelligently structured with heartfelt passion and attractive shading. Warm baritone Raphael Wong’s lively animation of the famous “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, dexterous as it was, sadly had timing issues. Lone female, luscious soprano Olivia Cranwell, took to the stage like a ship’s figurehead, surging ahead of the orchestra and ornamenting “Pleurez! pleurez mes yeux!” from Massenet’s Le Cid with exquisite delicacy, an outstanding rendition that would take her to runner up. Then, bright tenor Shanul Sharma displayed all the fireworks of the fair with aplomb that Rossini so skilfully scribed in “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” from La Cenerentola.

M. Petrucelli, S. Sharma, M. Riebl, O. Cranwell and R.Wong
However, it was the consistency in Riebl’s composed delivery, technical expertise and natural expressivity that won him the trophy. In Riebl’s second aria, “Venga pur, minacci e frema” from Mozart’s Mitridate, the adrenaline rushed with virility and force together with flexing coloratura and superbly disguised breathing. Riebl’s was an honest performance, fine-grained, without flamboyance.

Petruccelli’s well-contrasted aria was a touching and assured “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Cutting through the orchestra, Cranwell’s immersion into Puccini’s lucent “On bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly emitted a focused intensity.

Wong acquitted himself remarkably with a deliciously smooth and suitably selected “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. And standing by Rossini’s melodic whizzes, including a degree of difficulty of 10 High Cs, Sharma shook “Asile héréditaire ... Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance” from Guillaume Tell with forthrightness to take a well-deserved encouragement award.

On the whole, a dashing Orchestra Victoria supported the finalists admirably with maestro Mills doubling as conductor — attentions might have been divided on that front. While the judges deliberated, two young guest artists, pianist Hannah Shin and cellist Vincent Wang charmed with their virtuosic playing. It was, all in all, a night to celebrate the talents that nurture our opera future.


Herald Sun Aria Final
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
25th October 217

4-stars

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Director Penny Woolcock's brilliantly contemporised interpretation of The Pearl Fishers comes to LA Opera


After an initial 18-performance run at Paris' Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) never saw the stage again until 1886. Though it has entered the repertoire since, it was only performed for the first time in 100 years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last year. It is this production, by British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, that LA Opera is currently presenting on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The production was created for English National Opera and it makes a fine and welcome case for Bizet's lesser known work getting exposure today.

Alfredo Daza as Zurga, Nino Machaidze as Leïla and LA Opera Chorus
For the most part, the work is presented as a lush curio that gives directors and designers license to delve into Asian exoticism, often overly glamourised and generally far removed from our time. But Woolcock's version is a brilliantly contemporised and inventive interpretation of its story - one that centres on the bonds of friendship, love and loyalty - and it comes with refreshing directness and realism. Woolcock's sharp cinematic eye is evident from the moment the dreamily atmospheric overture plays. The entire stage is a cross-section of a deep blue sea in which three divers, the pearl fishers, swim through in a sensationally choreographed aerialist display that unsurprisngly brought applause. 

The setting (formerly Ceylon) is a little Sri Lankan village sitting vulnerably, as the circumstances are, at the edge of the water - poor, shanty-like and buzzing with its locals in spice-coloured costumes under a mostly inky sky (set designer Dick Bird, costumes by Kevin Pollard and lighting by Jen Schriever). The overall effect is masterful and adaptable in its scene changes. Of question, however, is the way how Woolcock turns Act 2's storm scene into a rogue tsunami reminiscent of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that would wipe out such a village. From there, projections of the disaster's aftermath mark scene changes (and they are lengthy) that are more detrimental in effect than being relevant on her otherwise insightful storytelling. On that front, Woolcock draws a wonderful picture of believable performances from her cast.

The story focuses on a friendship put to the test between Zurga and Nadir, who are both in love with the priestess Leila. She has sworn an oath of chastity as part of a religious ritual in order to protect the pearl divers, but weakens when Nadir’s arrival inflames her desires. 

Alfredo Daza as Zurga and Javier Camarena as Nadir
Bizet's scoring is sensitive, mature and gorgeously threaded but it is the opera's duet between Zurga and Nadir in Act I, "Au fond du temple saint”, that is its most well-known part. An impressive-voiced pair, Javier Camarena (Nadir) and Alfredo Daza (Zurga) made the duet a poignant highlight as they explored their character's friendship and tension, first singing apart before coming together to join in song as comrades wounded by a hint of uncertainty in their encounter. Camarena displayed much to impress in both his role and house debut, his warm and glimmering tenor on show and power when needed. Daza's striking presence, handsomely dark-hued and resonant baritone perfectly matched the command he exhibited as leader. With it came the dramatic interpretation and an underlying suspicion he layered on his character, coming to a climactic highlight in Act 3's opening as Zurga see-saws from remorse to jealousy. 

It's the role of Leïla that has the most taxing music and soprano Nino Machaidze, a regular and much-loved artist at LA Opera, made it divine. Machaidze brought to Leïla a beautifully poised demeanour and a devastatingly well-calibrated and touching performance as a 21st century woman sacrificing her freedom under religious demands in a male-dominated society. In Machaidze's genuinely felt rendition, sung with both spoonfuls of purity and magnetic resolve, Leïla has never been so relevantly portrayed. 
Nino Machaidze as Leïla
Big-brewing bass baritone Nicholas Brownlee gave a dignified performance as Nourabad, the humble high priest of Brahma. The chorus of fishermen, townsfolk, priests and priestesses didn't always harmonise to the excellent standards that audiences are accustomed to at LA Opera, but they still did a fine job, more so the ladies, and they certainly detailed their acting like they knew what's required of them for a Hollywood screen test.

For this matinee performance, Plácido Domingo took the baton up after only having taken the title role of Nabucco by the horns in the previous evening's opening night. There seems no stopping this maestro's tireless pursuits. Musically, Domingo issued the score with superbly balanced weight and energetic thrust in company with precision playing from the LA Opera Orchestra.

If The Pearl Fishers isn't amongst one of your favourite operas, this Penny Woolcock production, so gorgeously realised and sung, will likely change that.



The Pearl Fishers
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 28th October.


Production photos: Ken Howard