Thursday, April 27, 2017

Emotionworks Cut Opera's vivid, genre-crossed Tosca bound in Soul, Blues and R&B in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in Herald Sun in print 26th April and online 27th April

YOU would be hard pressed hearing someone leaving Puccini’s Tosca saying how much fun it was but Emotionworks Cut Opera do it differently. Like trying to prove that oil mixes with water, creator and director Julie Edwardson deconstructs opera’s lengthier form and adds her own genre-crossing music.

Puccini’s work doesn’t survive in its grand tragic way but, bound in this Blues, Soul and R & B mix, it’s a Tosca full of vivid life and high libidos too.

Lachie Purcell, Justine Anderson, Jason Wasley and Lauren Jaksetic 
Presented in a courtyard of the historic Pentridge Prison, this former palace of sinners shackles the story’s tragedy effortlessly, transferring the action from Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo in 1800, where Puccini set the final act, to within these high bluestone walls in contemporary times.

The political prisoner Angelotti (Richard Woods) escapes from Pentridge, the painter Cavaradossi (Jason Wasley) harbours him and Tosca (Justine Anderson), Cavaradossi’s opera-singing lover, is caught in the crossfire when the Chief of Police, Scarpia (Michael Lampard), schemingly traps her in an attempt to catch his escapee. Everyone falls victim to the hand of another.

Props are sparse but Edwardson cleverly weaves in two enigmatic dancers (Lauren Jaksetic and Lachie Purcell) as the ghosts of Tosca and Cavaradossi who relive the lovers’ last day and gently shadow them.

It is a beautiful effect and makes a striking black-and-white contrast to five unsmiling female prison guards with no shortage of dominatrix flair in the service of Scarpia. Consistently belting out most of the best vocals as these Soul Sirens, Antoinette D’Andrea, Natasha Jacoel-Kaminski, Joanna Collyvas, Georgia Chalfon and Terese Scalisi are indispensable to the show’s success.

More than 30 song snippets nestle in the show’s 90 minutes, most fitting the bill creatively, some feeling squeezed in. The focus isn’t entirely on Tosca but my quibble is that it is unnecessary having the tight four-member band step in and sing their tunes too.

Justine Anderson and Michael Lampard
Anderson’s Tosca turns on the heat with unrestrained hot-bloodedness and sexual confidence, portraying both strength and vulnerability. Despite some top-note struggles, Anderson’s dark-hued tone carries attractively, singing the opera’s most famous aria, l lived for art with starry depth and pathos. Imagine that, followed by Tina Arena’s Chains sung movingly by the Soul Sirens as Scarpia undoes his trousers. Not easy?

Or Cavaradossi’s aria, And the stars shone, sung with poignancy and grit by a muscular-voiced and impassioned, fine acting Wasley followed by Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine in a gorgeous rendition by Antoinette D’Andrea as he dropped to the ground.

But it’s Lampard’s slimy, limping and crotch-centric Scarpia that steals the show, deftly portraying man as beast in well-articulated hair-raising resonance and dramatic fullness.

Angelotti’s vocal chords are apparently ripped out in Block A Division, which explains Woods’ raspy operatic opening, but he sinks comfortably back to where his voice resides — to ACDC’s Jailbreak and back on guitar.

There are the songs of Christine Aguillera and Adele, Stevie Wonder and James Brown among many in a musical seesaw ride with Puccini that Edwardson makes work.

Come open minded and come to enjoy. And add a must-do tour of Pentridge for extra effect.

Pentridge Prison, 1 Champ Street, Coburg, until May 7

Rating: three stars

A clearly devised concept with mixed results in fledgling BK Opera's Werther in Melbourne

Another small opera company popped up on the scene in Melbourne last year to provide valuable performance opportunities for the city's enthusiastic band of singers. Great news for opera! Actually, I'm not entirely convinced. It seems to me that opera in the city needs to start focusing on building up and not out.

"No sets. No props. No microphones. Just beautiful music and amazing singers". It sounds like concert opera. That's newcomer BK Opera's catchphrase for presenting "bare bones" opera to Melbourne audiences but their new production of Massenet's Werther, with minimal cuts, doesn't really come as bare as all that.

Allegra Giagu as Charlotte and Patrick MacDevitt as Werther
Director Kate Millet and conductor James Penn's interpretation - that this is a story not about 'dying for love' but dying from undiagnosed depression and that the poet Werther may still have taken his own life even if Charlotte had married him - is spot on.

Millet brings this clearly devised concept to the table and it's smartly groomed with a serviceable performance area, a few props - a portrait of the newly reigning young Queen Elizabeth centred over two solid armchairs and a side table with lamp, telephone and record player - with some stylish post-WWII costumes that add immensely to the effect. We're in England and, though sung in French, the idea works well, thankfully with the help of English surtitles (compliments of Lyric Opera of Melbourne). The cast, when not 'on set', rested at trestles on the hall's perimeter - a good touch that reinforced the up-close nature of the production.

But, as appealingly grafted the aesthetic is with the venue, a combination of singers misgauging comfortable audio levels, together with Abbotsford Masonic Hall's low-level acoustic sophistication and rehearsal room-like atmosphere, hindered the overall experience.

A few old vinyl tracks play before the boisterous Le Bailli (David Lawson-Smith), and his friends Johann (Joshua Erdelyi-Götz) and Schmidt (Steve Carolane) arrive in an atmosphere the antithesis of gloom that pervades the work - a jolly trio initially held back by a lack of tuning into each other but rectifying this by their final attractively sung and aptly restrained "Noël! Jésus vient de naître".

In 'normalising' the difficult and tragic foreground of Werther's and Charlotte's more introspective portrayal and subsequent loss, contrasts are worked further with the innocent and bubbly Sophie, crisply and sweetly sung by April Foster and Charlotte's betrothed and grounded Albert, firmly, warmly and handsomely sung by Finn Gilheany.

Patrick MacDevitt as Werther and Finn Gilheany as Albert
As the titular character, however, it seemed our dishevelled Werther, Patrick MacDevitt, was never going to escape from the sickly pain that consumed his whole being. Truckloads of ardency in vocal thrust and persistent downcast frowns weren't converting into a convincing picture. MacDevitt, who understudied the role for Lyric's Werther in 2014, has a striking and large tenor. There is warmth and pliancy to be discovered in the voice but, here, it was heavily sacrificed for unrelenting power, making it hard to invest sympathy in his character's two-dimensional desperate obsession.

In wide contrast, dressed in mourning black, the richly centred and emotively well-calibrated mezzo-soprano, Allegra Giagu, mixed radiance with elegance and poise as Charlotte. In a woman she effortlessly showed as kind and dutiful, troubled and empathetic, Giagu's Charlotte also portrayed a love for Werther that felt real despite the picture of incompatibility. In Act III's opening aria, "Werther! Qui m'aurait dit ... Ces lettres!", in which she dolefully reads over Werther's letters, Giagu dug deep with heartfelt voice on every rise and fall and effected a quivering vibrato that mirrored a crushed inner soul - a performance highlight.

At the side, as conductor, Penn's broad sweeps of the air lovingly shaped what could be gleaned from Massenet's score with only two musicians - Pam Christie attentive on piano and Grace Gilkerson providing excellent technique and essential lugubrious underpinning on cello arranged by Penn.

Just how well this new little boat fairs and finds its raison d'être within the existing scene is yet to be seen. BK Opera's Werther has much appeal but, at this stage, it feels as if it needs tweaking for its audience.

Masonic Hall
141 Gipps Street, Abbotsford
Until 7th May

Production photos: courtesy BK Opera

Friday, April 21, 2017

A fantastic, dark world expires with Deutsche Oper's long-running Der Ring Des Nibelungen in Berlin

When Deutsche Oper's long-running Ring came to an end Monday night, so too did the life of director Götz Friedrich's iconic 1984 production. Soon after Valhalla went up in flames after 17 hours of operatic indulgence over 4 evenings, it was off to the recyclers in an inelegant ending for all the bits and bobs that pieced together its fantastic, dark world.

Inspired by mass transit subway tunnels that connect their cities above, more than three decades on, the concept behind Friedrich's "time-tunnel" Ring still remained vivid to the end even if its age was showing through the few loose boards, creaking set changes and, more distracting, Brünnhilde's wonky platform of punishment. Small reservations aside, it was a magnificent and mammoth achievement befitting Wagner's epic and life-affirming work.

Friedrich's Ring turned to the past as it awakened the future, truncating the action to give sharp focus to its tireless, fully fleshed characters, all 34 of them meeting the dizzying demands as a strong, totally committed and vocally splendid cast.

Before long, the geometric grandeur of Peter Sykora's set design draws the audience in to join the heavens, earth and underworld created within this gently arched tunnel that travels beyond its theatrical scale to form an enormous imagined elliptic torus. It sounds galactic and in Friedrich's version it rather is as its story of power, greed, vengeance and love was taken up in its hulking, metallic tubular world.

A 1980s mixed aesthetic lingered with strains of Spielberg sci-fi and punk rock occasionally orbiting near what now seem a tad cheesy - including the huge, blocky 'mechanitron' that goofily puffed smoke and lit up as a Fafner dragon. An overt sinister and airless atmosphere pervaded in the lighting design, frequently creating the oppressive and claustrophobic weight that married atmosphere with plot. But on the downside, faces were often stuck in shadows and the more colourful costumes were only discovered at curtain call.

"The beginning means the end, and the end is the beginning.” (Götz Friedrich, 1984).

Friedrich's Das Rheingold begins with the Gods shrouded in sheets - as if redundant or in storage - before the waters wash up to set the course of change. They return to the same state in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, therefore helping to emphasise humankind's attempts to make good but inability to escape from a cycle of destruction and rejuvenation.

Renouncing love for power, from the Rhinemaidens' stolen gold, a ring is forged by the Nibelung dwarf, Alberich. In the meantime, Wotan, ruler of the Gods, hasn't bargained too well for the payment of Valhalla, his newly constructed palace for the Gods, built by the Giants Fasolt and Fafner. Rather than keeping his word in handing over his sister Freia - who happens to provide the apples that maintain their youth -  Wotan steals the gold and the forged ring from Alberich, convincing the Giants to release Freia for the gold but, with it, is forced to hand over the ring. Since Alberich had put a curse on the ring, no sooner do the Giants have it than Fafner slays Fasolt and the long struggle to possess it over illogical altered time states takes hold - mostly in clearly delineated vignettes in Freidrich's "time-tunnel".

Das Rheingold ended in a striking tunnelled rainbow of colour as the Gods stepped a pavane into the distance. Fires rose menacingly from five substage burners to surround Brünnhilde's long wait for her hero in Die Walküre. In Götterdämmerung, adding to the scope of wonderful stage pictures, were the lofty pillared hall of the Gibichungs and the broad river of glinting cloth that gave the impression of an underground canal within the tunnel (not a sewer thankfully) when Siegfried rested at the Rhine before his encounter with the Rhinemaidens. A generous and memorable flow of creative splendour there was.

On the other hand, in Die Walküre, what looked like a huge decaying Swiss Army knife in dim light that turned out to be a twisted tree housing the hallowed sword Nothung, seemed not only excessive but out of place and overpowering in Siegmund and Sieglinde's iron-walled abode. A sole overhead light beaming on Siegfried during the long, gut-wrenching Funeral March in Götterdämmerung seemed not enough. Nonetheless, the overall production was characterised by a creatively sound and cohesive structure.

With Wagner's libretto comes an intricately detailed but clearly signposted reference to action present and past, as well as a score rich in easily identifiable leitmotifs that describe characters and objects. You're never lost. And when you realise you've confidently answered the six questions that Wotan, as the Wanderer and Alberich's despised brother Mime put to each other in a contest of wisdom in Siegfried, you've understood the Ring's underlying structure. To what extent the final performances adhered to the original 1984 premiere, however, I can't be sure but revival directors Jasmin Solfaghari and Gerlinde Pelkowski elucidate Friedrich's Ring in bold storytelling. The result is a powerful message - we're not to believe for a minute that any one of us is exempt from behaviour that swings between extremes. Just how far apart those extremes lie become haunting. They should.

It feels innately odd that one might never truly be prepared for Wagner's Ring until those first distant droning opening bars unleash. No amount of study and analysis can replace the rewards invested in experiencing it. In the pit, its lifeblood emanated with Donald Runnicles - Generalmusikdirektor of Deutsche Oper since 2007 - steering the more than 100 musicians of Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin through what headed towards a satisfying majestic and well-weighted extravaganza.

The great entrance to Das Rheingold started, however, with a sagging hesitancy and patchy brass tainted an otherwise eloquent sound that took flight once the descent to Alberich's subterranean world arrived. The richness followed in Die Walküre but it was the flawless musicianship in Siegfried that matched the  sensational onstage vocal work where the best results came. It set up a transcendent evening of music for Götterdämmerung and it came in spades with a poignantly drawn and orchestrally shaded reading replete with accentuated elastic tempi.

But the tour de force rested in singing that carried forward the drama absorbingly. As Siegfried, Stefan Vinke reigned supreme, tempering a mix of brashness with tenderness and heroism in a performance taken to precipitous heights that I didn't see at Opera Australia's Melbourne Ring last November. An invincible determination and unimaginable magnificence rang through Vinke's Forging Song in Act I of Siegfried. Both in vocal completeness and physical depiction, Vinke's Siegfried made a believable transition to the hero that Brünnhilde required.

Evelyn Herlitzius stood out with immense fighting spirit and an effortless, highly charged voice to match when she made her appearance as a long ginger-haired Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, the Valkyrie who becomes mortal and redeems the world. A new, transformed Brünnhilde woke up with Ricarda Merbeth's richly blossomed, focussed and intoxicating performance in Siegfried before Herlitzius returned to her splendorous form in Götterdämmerung. Of the two, Merbeth had the edge with clean, smooth and confident stokes accompanying Brünnhilde's introspection but Herlitzius, having the more taxing job, had the voluminous power and forthrightness to shake the house.

Their Valkyries looked oddly and heavily dressed for a punk rock gig but they were a strongly bound and fierce singing contingent, giving the epic's most popular tune, The Ride of the Valkeries, thrilling layers and texture.

Derek Welton, as the first, most youthful, of three Wotans, stamped vocal excellence on the role in an iron-clad performance underneath which a deeply nuanced vocal power full of molten riches percolated through. Iain Paterson followed up robustly, demonstrating in ample vocal expression the exasperation Wotan feels as ruler of the Gods in Die Walküre. And bringing steady, compelling hungry resolve and vocal engine power, Samuel Youn reinforced the desperation and decline of Wotan the Wanderer with heightened belligerence and dramatic magnetism in Siegfried.

Tirelessly authoritative yet loveless in marriage to Wotan, Daniela Sindram's luscious, jewel-encrusted mezzo-soprano accompanied the poise and nobility she depicted as Fricka. The exact measure of vitriol poured from Werner Van Mechelen's broad, gnarly-voiced and snakily determined Alberich while Paul Kaufmann cowered and grovelled as Mime in Das Rheingold. Burkard Ulrich took the part over in impressive tensile, stringy-voiced form in Siegfried after having animated the role of Loge glowingly in Das Rheingold.

The Giants Fasolt and Fafner were a little precarious on their 12-inch steel-framed heels but what they couldn't make up for in mobility was more than delivered with thuggishness. Albert Pesendorfer's heated-voiced Fasolt was taken down by Andrew Harris's more rugged and muscular-voiced Fafner. Returning as Alberich's offspring Hagen, Pesendorfer stealthily took back command in cunning fashion and depths of rich vocal viscosity.

With an especially formidable gift of the heart, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang through her ordeal with class and gravitas as Sieglinde. As her incestuously in love twin brother Siegmund, Stuart Skelton worked bravery to convincing lengths with full-bodied power and as much heroic appeal as befits the future father of Siegfried. Sealed with a more than a cursory kiss, allusions to incest popped up again rather unnecessarily on twins Gunther and Gutrune's road to power-broking marriages. But Seth Carico's fine mix of distinguished polish and nervousness as Gunther and Ricarda Merbeth's return from Brünnhilde as the vixen-like Gutrune were planted strongly in voice.

And Ronnita Miller's brief appearance as Erda in Das Rheingold rather froze time as she edged mysteriously forward in earth-shattering form. Holding a deeply carved and cavernous instrument, Ronnita Miller was a superhuman sensation, returning with penetrating galactic force in Siegfried.

The list of star turns goes on. Götz Friedrich's Ring does not, but one thing is certain - the profound art that exists in Wagner's Ring will. It starts up once again in 2020 at Deutsche Oper under the command of Stefan Herheim in what's going to be a much anticipated affair.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Until 17th April 2017

Production Photos: Bettina Stöß

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Staatsoper Berlin's vocally exquisite Die Frau ohne Schatten in a nightmarish psychological thriller

Opera, as an art form, rattles the senses to interpret freely. Indeed, it seemed that way for me in seeing Staatsoper Berlin's new production of Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten  (The Woman without a Shadow) which had come via earlier seasons at La Scala and Covent Garden. I came to Berlin to see Götz Friedrich's final outing of Wagner's Ring at Deutsche Oper. Seeing Staatsoper Berlin's Die Frau ohne Schatten in between was akin to adding a diamond to my visit.

Camilla Nylund (Empress)
Sung in German with German surtitles, it could have been enough to lose me but familiarisation with the synopsis, advised beforehand, lent a good degree of background. In the theatre, however, it's an exercise requiring sustained curiosity and concentration. I gave up whether or not I was on the right track and just took a train of thought to my own conclusion. The rewards were abundant, not least of which included exquisite vocal work, a smashing orchestral landscape with Zubin Mehta at the helm and a visually seductive staging from director Claus Guth.

Strauss' long-time collaborating librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, created the story from sources that included Goethe's "The Conversation of German Emigrants", the Arabian Nights and Grimms' Fairy Tales. In a fantastical collision of spiritual and earth worlds, the onetime gazelle and now shadowless half human/half spirt Empress (Camilla Nylund) - symbolising her inability to bear children - must acquire a shadow. Failing, she will be reclaimed by her father, Keikobad, and her husband turned to stone, the Emperor (Burkhard Fritz), who captured her as a gazelle. The Empress' Nurse (Michaela Schuster) concocts a plan to steal the shadow of a mortal and for this they visit the home of Barak (Wolfgang Koch) and his Wife (Iréne Theorin), she who secretly doesn't want children. 

 Camilla Nylund (Empress), Michaela Schuster Nurse)
In the bright outcome of Hofmannsthal's story pointing at marital love being blessed by children, the two couples unite in praise of their Unborn Children. But Guth appears to distort the intrinsic dark magic profusely, emphasising the macabre  and allowing it to unfold like a nightmarish psychological thriller sung in a treacherous storm of vocal immensity with little note of the joyous ending. The match he makes to Strauss' turbulent score - a spectrum of sublimely lush orchestral layers from dreamy lyricism to tempestuous terror and ecclesiastical glory - is impressive. At curtain call, Maestro Mehta stood genuinely proud, and rightly so of his 100-plus musicians who took the stage after giving non-stop, pounding orchestral vividness.

The curtain rises to reveal a segmented circular-walled, timber-panelled bare bedchamber with the Empress lying comatose-like, attended by the winged Nurse, the winged Messenger of Keikobad dressed as a doctor (Roman Trekel) and the caped Emperor. A sense of loss prevails.

Camilla Nylund (Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (Emperor)
When, in the end, we see the Empress back in her rudimentary steel bed before getting up in her nightgown and gazing emptily through a frosted window, everything in between seems to suggest she had been committed to a sanitarium for the mentally ill, her life precipitously on the edge. 

In a deeply coercive performance as the Empress, Camilla Nyland attacks the role with sensational depth, anxious and writhing in moments of agonised migraine fits and wafting amongst visions of her gazelle-headed counterpart and spirit-world characters with the sense of being taunted by the hopelessness of ever having bearing offspring who she sees as faun-headed children happily dancing about her.

Set and costume designer Christian Schmidt's early 20th Century restrained modernist aesthetic, including a neatly rear-centred revolve that supplies the many scene changes, parallels the time the opera premiered in 1919 and includes Freudian references via Andi A. Müller's video projections, including a hand petting the gazelle's fur and schools of fish. Olaf Winter's lighting design shapes a marvellous, dark, evocative and complex beauty.

Nyland tears through the vocal writing in wondrous form, the agility, grace, beauty and alertness of the gazelle clearly replicated in her plush dramatic soprano. She is joined by two equally outstanding women in Michaela Schuster, who sang the role of the Nurse in both Milan and London, and Iréne Theorin as Barak's Wife.

Burkhard Fritz (Emperor)
Alluringly rich and acrobatic in vocal technique, indefatigable dramatic mezzo-soprano Schuster grips and plucks the air in sinister and selfish witch-like behaviour, winged in black as if mimicking the Empress's distrust in her dependency on her carer's expected guardian angel-like quality. To Barak's scolding and defiant Wife, Theorin gives expressive command and a rich forest of vocal shading. 

Burkhard Fritz's distinguished, capacious sounding Emperor and Wolfgang Koch's muscular-voiced, rustic and berated Barak sturdily complimented the power of the women alongside an entire cast that shone brilliantly, never faltering in staying above the volume from the pit. Roman Trekel's resonant, dark and dusky bass-baritone as the Messenger of Keikobad, tenor Jun-Sang Han's suave and sonorous woos as The Apparition of a Youth with Narine Yeghiyan's refined and mellifluous soprano accompanying her watchful and flapping Falcon all added dramatic depth. 

I was completely carried away by the quality, strength and splendour of the cast. The audience were clearly enraptured too in this production that will continue to etch its captivating and haunting stage pictures in time to come, in an interpretation in which I want to remember Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Staatsoper Berlin
Schiller Theater
Until 16th April 

Production photos: Hans Jörg Michel

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Soaked in an eerie, blood-red beauty, a foreboding Lucia di Lammermoor opens in Beijing

Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Marco Caria as Enrico
In Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835, the image of a bloodstained nightgown goes hand in hand with opera's most famous mad scene, in which a young bride forced into marriage is driven to despair and murder on her wedding night. For optimum effect, the blood is rarely spared in the theatre.

But in this first-time coproduction between Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and Mariinsky Theatre of Russia, directed and designed by Yannis Kokkos, the blood had metaphorically already ran. Awash with scarlet and cardinal from interiors to costumes, Kokkos's formidably dark production is soaked in a foreboding and painterly eerie blood-red beauty.

In a work based on Sir Walter Scott's Scottish-set 1819 novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, only the smallest hint of tartan splashes the plush period-inspired costumes. Juxtaposed breathtakingly against numerous abstracted geometric sets that evoke grandeur through simplicity, prominence is given to a tumultuous, ever changing sky as part of Vinicio Cheli's immensely moody lighting design.

Then there are references to the deer hunt. Symbolising tenderness tempered with strength, a large statue of a deer commands the opening scene and appears at different times in different forms. In a painted backdrop to Lucia's Mad Scene, the deer is struggling for survival - able to be brought down in seconds by a pack of dogs in a hunt - much as Lucia herself is.

Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Stefano Secco as Edgardo
Already battered by the death of her mother, Lucia finds strength in love, though one that is at odds with family expectations. She is betrayed by her brother and, believing she is betrayed by her lover, is asphyxiated by circumstance and patriarchal norms. The total staged effect gives palpability to Lucia's precipitous state and achieves a visual poetry comfortable at one with the tragedy. Kokkos reveals himself as a master of dramatic interpretation, of rich aesthetic composition and emotively structured direction.

Two casts alternated in the principal roles across just four nights at the smaller opera theatre of the Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre while the NCPA undergoes stage maintenance and renovation. I attended the third performance in which Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva sang the title role as she did on opening night (alternating with Zhang Liping). Gimadieva's more winsome and angelic Lucia was mildly problematic but she took the Mad Scene compellingly by the horns, noticeably exciting the mostly Chinese audience who otherwise thought nothing of scrolling through their mobile devices during the performance. Gimadieva required an ounce more power to combat the drama and a little more fluidity across the coloratura but a superfine crystal top and striking flexibility of voice with underlying emotional intent made for a beguiling and graceful Lucia.

It was the men who came out victorious in this male-dominated world. Demonstratively rich and expressive in voice and acting, Stefano Secco and Marco Caria were outstanding as Lucia's lover Edgardo and her brother Enrico respectively. High-heat tenor Secco brought superb clarity to his fiercely passionate and gallant Edgardo. Together with Gimadieva the pair harmonised convincingly and, as Edgardo nears his own end in the final scene, Secco digs even deeper to give compelling gravitas.

Marco Caria as Enrico, Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Shi Lina as Alisa
Caria put his impressive dusky and smouldering baritone to virulent use as Enrico with acting that always added tension. Sergey Artamonov was an authoritative, pious Raimondo. Wang Chong gave pronounced strength and bright arrow-sharp capability in voice with the stature to match Lucia's betrothed, Lord Arturo and smaller roles were filled soundly with Kou Jing as Normanno and Shi Lin as Alisa. The large 70-plus chorus sang with dutiful care and acted in great sympathetic accord.

 I had issue, however, with the pit. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was scheduled to take the baton but cancelled due to personal reasons. Israeli conductor Daniel Oren was the replacement. Despite excellent musicianship, Oren's tendency to over-egg the tempi and volume didn't always pay off, giving the feeling that the music was combatively toying with the stage.

Minor reservations aside on the musical front, the evocative theatricality of Kokkos's Lucia di Lammermoor adds intelligent and dramatic three-dimensional weight to Donizetti's work. It opens to St Petersburg audiences later in the year, hopefully to zero tolerance on smartphone use.

Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre
Until 12th April

Production photos: Ling Feng

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Chamber Made Opera's therapeutic, sometimes puzzling and entirely engaging Between 8 and 9

With the knowhow to pep our sense of curiosity, you come to expect to be rewarded with the unexpected in Melbourne-based Chamber Made Opera's work. Their latest venture, Between 8 and 9, is a deeply collaborative partnership with China's Sichuan Conservatory of Music. The result is a banquet of meditative and otherworldly blending and churning of instrumental, vocal and electronic sound that powerfully distances the observer from routine and places them in an abstracted cross-cultural medium of sorts. Regardless of what you make of it, it's therapeutic, sometimes puzzling and entirely engaging.

Percussionist Wang Shuai, Between 8 and 9
As part of Melbourne's Asia TOPA Festival, Between 8 and 9 is the culmination of two year's work from what began as an impromptu performance in a Chengdu teahouse after a two-week artistic exploration. Led by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey as part of eight performing artists, a sense of the impromptu lingers but with it comes ceremonial-like order that binds one and all in a sense of egalitarian comfort and mystique.

So what exactly happens? The number eight, representing harmony and prosperity in Chinese numerology, dictates the format. Each audience member receives an envelope containing a coloured card that identifies a spot at one of eight round tables at which they can take a seat amongst seven others. Prominent is a rectangular lazy Susan featuring geometric workings and thin rods magnetically supported on the surface that looks sculpturally appealing and mathematically perplexing. Each of the eight performers are seated at a table. Lighting is subdued as the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Hall takes on the feel of a function room, or Chinese restaurant, in which the audience unites in communal conditioning. The serenity and energy is palpable.

Wang Zheng-Ting opens with the mellifluous piping of the sheng (a form of Chinese mouth organ) to expose what feels like a vast distant landscape. It's followed by a dance-like form before identifying a world that conjures a blend of Chinese and Australian motifs as each performance artist constructs a simple scene - a circle of green silk is placed down, a square wooden block and triangular prism form a simple dwelling, a silvery circle is planted with lotus leaves and three rods stand vertical with a disc atop as if emulating a windmill. The striking visual effect is accompanied by vocally produced mosquito sounds, claps to catch them and yawns that are, of course, catchy! As one of the most captivating segments, its construct cleverly both describes and blurs differences to establish harmony when cultures come together.

Sheng master Wang Zheng-Ting, Between 8 and 9
Vocalists Zhu Hui-Qian and Kang Yan-Long exchange a mesmerising song of romance, she with a knife-edge sharp and glassy soprano, he with leonine megaphonic force. They are part of a meandering series of vignettes making up the piece that include performance artists Madeleine Flynn (pedal organ/toy piano/vintage electronics), Guo Si-Cen (erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument), Tim Humphrey (brass/electronics), Wang Shuai (percussion) and Carolyn Connors (vocalist/accordion/winds).

Halfway through its 70-minute duration, the artists serve buckwheat tea as a carnivalesque-like Klezmer-sounding music is played by Humphrey on trumpet, Connors on accordion with Wang joining on sheng. It relieves part of the intensity while cementing a sense of unity with many fellow attendees keen to let loose in conversation.

Sung and poetically spoken Chinese and English pepper the experience alongside a clarity and resonance of musical delivery with creative producer Tim Stitz and a team of collaborating creative artists' influence giving an all-encompassing and striking effect.

And what of nine? In Chamber Made Opera's artists' statement we learn that nine symbolises "achievement on a higher spiritual plane" and that the work "explores the space between the two". On that level, experiencing Between 8 and 9 succeeds. With no narrative, our focus is shifted, discoveries are made and the artistry speaks to us in both a personal and collective sense through cultural differences. It makes for a priceless experience.

Chamber Made Opera
Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
Until 1st April

Production photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Victorian Opera's bright, spright and tightly produced The Princess and the Pea

There were quite a few little princesses and some budding young suitors flocking around Arts Centre Melbourne on Saturday for Victorian Opera's latest family opera, Ernst Toch's The Princess and the Pea - a delightful sight indeed.

For this musical fairy tale in one act, lasting just 40 minutes to comfortably engage its time-poor but discerning young audience, Victorian Opera have excelled with this bright, spright and tightly produced work. It was one of just three performances all on the one day and it's another smart and impressive work to come out of the company with much to offer all ages.

Scene from Victorian Opera's The Princess and the Pea
Based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale published in 1835, Toch's musically bold, polyphonically piquant and descriptive style, in itself, was a privilege to listen to as conductor Fabian Russell percipiently buffed up the score with a fine patina via a handsomely sized and focused Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra. Many will be familiar with the story of the young woman whose royal credentials are established by testing her physical sensitivity but few would be acquainted with Toch's rewardingly mature orchestrations, first heard at its premiere in 1927.

In director Libby Hill's creative angle on the story, we're on the TV set of an episode of Mythical Mysteries in which a flurrying and highly animated cast of actors breezily tell the tale alongside an equally animated television crew. When the princess fails to turn up for her part, the director's assistant is forced into the role as the cameras run. It just so happens that when her off-camera prince-in-waiting catches sight of her, he falls head over heals in love.

Each scene was surtitled with a brief description in English to Benno Elkan's German-sung libretto. An English translation exists but perhaps Hill's adaptation sits obliquely to this version. Nonetheless, despite the jolly good gesturing, older audience members would benefit from added nuances embedded in the text- a small quibble because the work is full of life.

In this pantomime-like world, the giggles erupted as the mattresses are stacked for "the most beautiful bed ever seen" to an amusing slapstick display before the most appropriate pea is selected from a basketful of exaggerated sizes some children I heard question.

Bless them. I didn't hear them question the juicy palette of vivid clashing colours that decorate a polka-dotted boxed set within a TV studio setting together with the eye-catching and intricately flouncy costumes by designer Candice MacAllister. Peter Darby's punchy lighting design aided in demarcating the studio and set. They fell for it. Oh, and so did I.

Olivia Cranwell, Jerzy Kowlowski, James Egglestone, Kathryn Radcliffe
It was all spun into a vibrant vocal tapestry by the seriously fine talent that took the stage in an ensemble that worked a sweet treat with their audience. Jerzy Kozlowski brought beefy-rich helpings to the pompous King with Kathryn Radcliffe haughtily parading at his side in plush-voiced splendour as the Queen. Soprano Olivia Cranwell cordially sparkled all the way in her transition from stunned crew member to the star of the show as the winsome Princess. James Egglestone milked every moment as the vain and fussy Prince even before his grand resonant tenor made an explosive opening. Michael Petruccelli and Michael Lampard cut a memorable and muscular-voiced pair as the TV Director and TV Cameraman respectively and Dimity Shepherd shone commandingly as the conscientious TV Host.

Coming to its end, we're told there's a moral to the story, "Don't judge a book by its cover". I'm glad for that because I was a little concerned that one might read a little snobbery within the pages. Still, it's a fun and highly polished show but let's just hope our little princesses attending don't turn out as precious.

Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Three performances, 26th March

Production Photos:  Charlie Kinross