Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Melbourne Festival's Taylor Mac: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music (Chapter I: 1776-1836) - outrageously bawdy, sensory and highly pertinent

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, in edited form, 13th October 2017.


Imagine a drag queen born from the cosmos in an explosion of light and glittering colour. Then, imagine this being as an all-knowing disciple of the universe, arriving to bring enlightenment to a world wounded and suffering. Finally, imagine being transfixed by her aura, under her spell and converted by her message of love, inclusiveness and acceptance. This is Taylor Mac, creator, writer, performer, and codirector of A 24-Hour History of Popular Music, here as part of the Melbourne Festival.

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Chapter I
In an epic deconstruction of American history, 1776 to the present, Mac scrutinises a world of oppression and fear that obstructed and injured many as others exerted their superiority. Mac does this through songs of the period and an all-embracing charisma in an outrageously bawdy show that ignites the 'what were' and 'what ifs' in a wild ride.

It's 24 hours in length, spread across four six-hour chapters over four nights. Chapter I: 1776-1836 burst open in a ricochet of rich and raucous entertainment, at the heart of which community building is paramount, boundaries are expanded and normal is an alien concept. Not to worry if you're not familiar with American history, Mac makes it memorable, immediate, sensory and highly pertinent. To begin, a welcome and exchange of gifts from local indigenous representative Aunty Di Kerr made certain it would be.

From the American Revolution to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, coursing through the early Woman's Lib and Temperance movements with a heteronormative narrative as colonisation, Mac bites into history and humanity. Song after song - with new arrangements by music director and pianist Matt Ray - is sung with absorbing power, inexhaustible energy and chameleon-voiced subtlety. Ray leads an exceptional band of 24 versatile musicians with one lost every hour.

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Chapter I
An ensemble of "Dandy Minions" weaves about with items including dress-ups to reimagine ourselves, pamphlets, apples, beer, ping pong balls, flowers, grapes and blindfolds that stir participation. At times you might feel lost (blindfolded for an hour, you are) or uncomfortable (that's ok too) and thirsty (there's a bar to head to) but Mac is always there if you need him as he changes from one wild costume to another, crowned with elaborate headdresses of tinsel, cork and feathers by costume designer Machine Dazzle.

From the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible in "Amazing Grace", Mac stamps impact on over 50 songs, some familiar, many not, all with purpose. There's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and an appearance by cabaret sensation Meow Meow in "10,000 Miles". Further along, there's the clash of puritanism with debauchery in "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes", a rousing "Shenandoah" from a beautifully harmonised chorus on the way to the moving Cherokee songs on the Trail of Tears as the colourful story of Harry, Jane and Louisa Maria is threaded until we reach a soaring rendition of "Banks of the Ohio".

By this point, you're never going to let anything stand in queer's way.


Taylor Mac: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music
Melbourne Festival
Forum Theatre
11th October 2017

4.5-stars


Production Photos: Sarah Walker

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Adventure and enthusiasm aplenty in Victorian Opera's youth opera, The Second Hurricane

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, in edited form, 10th October, 2017.



Youth's adventurous spirit and boundless enthusiasm is on full display in Victorian Opera's latest production that nurtures the future of young singers as part of Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE).

Victorian Opera's VOYCE, The Second Hurricane
American composer Aaron Copland's The Second Hurricane, premiered in 1937 and written specifically as a youth opera, gives a compelling account of a group of six high school students who volunteer and fly off to aid victims of a hurricane. Avidity takes a turn as they become stranded with floodwaters rising around them but learn to resolve their differences and rally together after a second hurricane strikes.

Copland and librettist Edwin Denby's one-hour work unfolds like a music parable. Copland's fizzing score notes an insistence on "ascetic Brechtian performance style", as the program outlines, which director and VO Developing Artist Alastair Clark adheres meticulously to and delivers with invigoration along its course. Accordingly, in its Marxist-influenced social message of solidarity, focus is on the collective rather than individual characters and commentary is strongly and directly addressed to the audience, mostly in linear stage-fronting formation.

Rare, and a shame, are the use and warmth of personal interaction and eye contact. In its place are simple hand waving, crouching, salutes and other well-choreographed sequences of community solidarity that, despite their eye-catching style and impeccably timed nature, end up sugaring rather than churning the experience.


What clearly stood proud on opening night was the excellent and exuberant singing, along with crystal diction, that the more than forty youth combine to perform. The work's emphasis on chorus work gave them ample opportunity to shine. Conducting, Angus Grant did a sterling job in securing a seamlessly rich sound from both the performers and Tom Griffiths' solo piano accompaniment.

Victorian Opera's VOYCE, The Second Hurricane
Mellifluous soprano Shimona Thevathasan sparkled as head of the class, Queenie, pairing with James Emerson's firm-voiced and balanced, natural appeal as Gyp in a touching moment of crisis. James Young's meaty vocals pushed their weight as class bully Fat and Lachlan McLean  was resonant as the new kid Butch trying to take leadership. Other roles were covered solidly with Thomas Harvey as an effeminate nerd and class "brain" Lowrie, Saskia Mascitti as the determined Gwen and Dorcas Lim in the pants role as Jeff, the country-boy hick.

Eduard Ingles' efficient design is a simple jumble of chairs hung over a broad, stepped platform that incorporates lighting that subtly captures mood. Hues of blue denim and casual tops provide effective costumes (supervised by Joanne Paterson) for a chorus that become the floodwaters surrounding the students in a deeply atmospheric scene and whose identities stand out in bold, stereotypical costumes.

The Second Hurricane entices visually and showcases the strength and discipline of our young local singers marvellously but faithfulness to its staunch Brechtian ways also tends to be its entrapment.


The Second Hurricane
Victorian Opera
Horti Hall, 31 Victoria Street, Melbourne
Until 15th October
3.5 stars


Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Ferruccio Furlanetto and Igor Tchetuev in recital - an affecting and incisive intrepretation of Russian art songs


How rare it is to hear the deepest extremes of the human vocal instrument given centre-stage attention in recital. In opera, as devils and gods, kings, leaders and fathers, the bass voice embraces, smothers and thunders its hefty way into the drama, more often without stealing the limelight from the glamorous sopranos or tenors. It's these such roles that internationally acclaimed Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto has stamped his mark on in all the major opera houses - the title role of Boris Godunov aside, there's Jacopo Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin and Philippe II in Don Carlos, which Furlanetto sang in his Australian debut in Sydney in 2015.

On Monday evening, in a recital presented by Opera Australia, local audiences had the fortune to attend Furlanetto's Melbourne debut at the Melbourne Recital Hall in an all Russian program of songs by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). On show was the superbly refined sound of an artist whose secure, resonant and smouldering bass clad the songs in thrilling dramatic purpose. At piano, Ukrainian born pianist Igor Tchetuev's insightful playing and judiciously balanced support provided additional striking textures. Together, a lush and thickly blanketed acoustic blend filled the venue's large Elizabeth Murdoch Hall.

Furlanetto and Tchetuev have appeared numerous times together and the polish they apply to performance is evidently ingrained. In 2010, the pair released a CD recording of Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky songs on Prestige Classics Vienna, simply titled, Songs. It's from this collection that the Melbourne recital is predominantly based (as was the same program performed at Sydney Recital Hall on 30th September).

The evening was characterised by songs of pronounced introspection, often plaintive and eerie, to verse that speaks to the landscape, to the unseen and to the heart and Furlanetto meandered through them eloquently. A complimentary program booklet included the English translation of the songs, though it would have been helpful to see in print the Russian being sung. Nonetheless, and notably, Furlanetto guided the listener through the text via expertly described interpretations.

The program's first part featured eight songs by Rachmaninov (some coming in at barely a minute's length), including "The Silent Night" and "O, No, I Beg You, Do Not Leave!" from the early Op. 4 designated song set and "A Dream" from the Op. 8 of 1893. From the Op. 21 set of 1902, Furlanetto began the evening in commanding form with the heavy air that the song "Fate" carries, the word 'Стук' (Stuk), or 'knock' hammered three times and interspersed through the text to reinforce the ominous end to come. Furlanetto established an immediate connection to the spirit of the song, extracting its dark colours as he stood in front of the piano and occasionally leaning a hand on it to take the weight of an anxious and affected character.

Also from Op. 21, Furlanetto imbued the songs "Lilacs" and "How Nice it is Here" with ample richness within their brevity, a big and beautifully harnessed middle and low range burning from the engine inside. If one could detect a slight hesitancy and push at the top of the voice early in the first part, any doubts about its health and powerful soaring height was easily swept aside before the first part's last song, "The fields are covered still with snow" of Op.14, was over, a song that yields radiance and warmth in tone and hope.

Nine songs by Mussorgsky formed the second part of the program, including the four-song cycle composed in the mid-1870s considered to be Mussorgsky's masterpiece in the genre, "Songs of Dance and Death", which were saved for last. Within them, Furlanetto delivered the sadness and horror of death, which arrives in various forms, for each of the dark-hued and individualistic songs - "Trepak", "Lullaby", "Serenade", and the tumultuous "The Field Marshall" - in enigmatic storytelling style and diverse chromatic beauty. The conviction, fluidity and fire in Furlanetto's interpretation was to become the evening's runaway highlight.

In the first five songs, mostly brief but which generate just as much poignancy in their little vignettes, Furlanetto maintained a believable love for the music he sang, beginning with a soulful "The Leaves were Whispering Sadly" (written when Mussorgsky was 19 years old) which featured the voice's tremendous steadiness and clean crescendos. The  sense of tension relayed in "What are Words of Love to You?", the warm and chesty resonance that compliments "Song of the Old Man" and the determination to convey the sadness of loneliness in "The Winds Blow" with effortlessly cohesive phrasing - even in depths of gravitas, Furlanetto has the ability to edge the voice in attractive golden light.

Next May, Furlanetto returns to Melbourne to take the title role in Opera Australia's new production of Massenet's Don Quichotte. For those in the audience who saw the calibre of performance that Furlanetto brought to this collection of Russian art songs, an outstanding treat awaits.


Ferruccio Furlanetto and Igor Tchetuev in Recital
Melbourne Recital Hall
2nd, October 2017



Sunday, October 1, 2017

On the Coolangatta sands, Verdi's Aida is dazzlingly brought to life in Opera Australia's Griffith Opera on the Beach


Treated to a clear and calm evening with a background of pre-performance Middle Eastern music and a Pacific Ocean horizon view, Opera Australia's new production of Verdi's Aida promises exoticism to sink the teeth into and sand to dig the feet in. It's Old Kingdom Egypt on the beach at Gold Coast's Coolangatta and it's an experience few barefooted opera-goers would leave unimpressed by. This is the national opera company's Griffith Opera on the Beach, a collaboration between Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University with support from Tourism and Events Queensland (amongst others) and it comes in first-class form.

 Opera Australia's Griffith Opera on the Beach - Aida
On top of there being so much to love about the concept of opera on the beach, director Hugh Halliday's Aida unfolds gloriously on the sands in a musically fulfilling, vocally splendid and boldly presented evening of astutely realised drama in a broadly traditional approach.

Rising above a stepped terrace on which two minor sphinxes demarcate the outer area, two lofty sandstone pylons form a centralised gateway flanked by two 6-metre high statues of seated pharaohs. Set designer David Fleischer's imposing scheme is guided by symmetry and fantastic realism, providing three doorways as entry points on the edifice. Further access is achieved via left and right forecourt sides as well as steps from the sands up to it. Fleischer gives Halliday much to work with. Halliday obliges with rewarding results, commendably conveying the expected pageantry with vivid and uncomplicated effectiveness as he carefully juxtaposes a large community chorus (alongside 7 members of the Opera Australia Chorus) with scenes of dramatic intimacy and reserves of sensitivity.

Two well-behaved camels transport their cargo appropriately. Local surf lifesavers assist in presenting the spoils of war (a smiling nod to the oddity of it) in Act 2's famous moment as part of a gorgeously rendered and sung triumphal celebration of victory,  Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside / "Glory to Egypt, to Isis!" and Elise May's dynamic choreography of her 10 flexible dancers from Expressions Dance Company weaves itself eye-catchingly without intrusion on proceedings. The creative picture is enhanced by Anna Cordingley's stylised ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian costumes that punch their shimmering beauty through with vibrancy and cohesiveness and David Walter's lighting design that captures everything from the colossal to the focused with exciting and evocative moods.

Anna-Louise Cole as Aida
Fine pageantry aside - fireworks included - the turns and tension of the story of forbidden love between the Ethiopian slave princess Aida and the captain of the Egyptian army Radamès are skilfully driven by a strong cast of soloists.

Signalling what should be more big roles to come, soprano Anna-Louise Cole is exquisite in the title role as Aida (which she shares with Natalie Aroyan), depicting her with an affecting multi-dimensional spirit that captures everything from the gently feminine to the defiant and coercive. Cole sings with highly attractive vocal richness, expression and poise while exhibiting an easy comfort across a broad range to elevate the demands on every account. If there was just one moment to keep close in Cole's performance, it would be the burning tenderness brought to Act 3's Qui Radamès verra .. O patria mia / "Oh, my dear country!", in which Aida waits for Radamès outside the Temple of Isis on the eve of his wedding to Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt. The crowd acknowledged it enthusiastically.

Arnold Rawls as Radamès
In fact, Act 3's entirety is a riveting and emotion-charged highlight both in direction and delivery, centring around Aida's cornered heart that faces loyalty to her father Amonasro and love for Radamès.

As Radamès, robust tenor Arnold Rawls powerfully invokes the warrior spirit and gives it unwavering vocal muscularity in a Goliathan and most convincing outing. But Rawls, just as marvellously, expresses Radamès heart in passionately warm tones in his love for Aida and for country, soaring through Act 1's Celeste Aida / "Heavenly Aida" in a thrilling opening aria full of melting resonance and command. Showing both the authoritative and affectionately paternal sides of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, resonant and dusky baritone Michael Honeyman is the third in the trio of best performances.

Although at ease and beauty in top-range rage with her lush, dark mezzo-soprano, Sian Pendry's angulated-acted and overwrought-directed Amneris (whose role she shares with Milijana Nikolic) becomes an overdramatised distraction. There's pleasing firmness and openness in Gennadi Dubinsk's High Priest Ramfis and heavy bass solidity in David Hibbarb's steadfast King of Egypt. Two minor roles are filled impressively with tenor Stuart Haycock's strident-voiced Messenger and Leah Thomas as the delicately sweet-sounding High Priestess. The Opera Australia Community Chorus, in a range of roles from Egyptian soldiers and Ethiopian slaves to priests and priestesses, move with confidence and sing in excellent form.

Michael Honeyman as Amonasro
Behind the scenes keeping Verdi's score in eloquent and resplendent form, conductor Tahu Matheson leads an outstanding team from Opera Australia Orchestra and Griffith University student musicians. The contrasts between expert billowing woodwind and crisp brass playing brilliantly compliment the warm string section, which the cellos and double basses support with beautifully cushioned passages. Much credit goes to sound designer Adrian Riddell in attaining such high standards in the acoustic execution of music and song in an outdoor setting.

In Act 4's final scene in which Radamès is sealed in the vault of the Temple of Vulcan and where Aida had previously snuck into, the lighting on the sandstone central gateway is evocative enough to make a convincingly airless end to a night in which not a breath of wind blew to drive the sand. The suffocation is palpable, the effect breathless as Cole's Aida and Rawls' Radamès unite in death. And after the scaffold, fibreglass, gantries and low-backed beach chairs are removed, the picture-book-brought-to-dazzling-life quality of this Aida will remain for those who took the journey.

The local community of Coolangatta is waiting for the next project. So will those who'll want to visit again from far and wide. Griffith Opera on the Beach, @OperaAustralia #OperaBeach, is one of the national companies great and outreaching endeavours.


Aida
Opera Australia, Griffith Opera on the Beach
Coolangatta Beach, Gold Coast
Until 30th September.


Production Photographs: Scott Belzner






Thursday, September 28, 2017

A voyeuristic edge frames BK Opera's inescapably gripping La voix humaine


Bethany Eloise, La voix humaine
At first, it was difficult to know whether I had arrived at the right spot for BK Opera's final production of their three-opera season for 2017. But, after a tentative climb above a few flights of stairs at 193 Bourke Street in central Melbourne, I was greeted by artistic director, Kate Millett and relieved to be where I was supposed to. As part of Melbourne's Fringe Festival, the enigma of dabbling into theatrically unsophisticated and surprising new spaces was palpable. What was to come could very well leave its dramatic stain upon them.

It may even leave you feeling that you weren't meant to be there. In Francois Poulenc's haunting one-act opera, La voix humaine, Millett creates a setting for four disturbing and fluidly connected encounters with a nameless woman ("Elle" or "She" in French) who is suffering after the breakdown of a 5-year relationship with her "Mon Cheri" and who eventually takes her life after a series of real-time telephone conversations in 45 minutes of dramatic monologue. We are by no means guests in her cocooned little bed chamber, four of them - each with its own singer who depicts her mental deterioration - but attend, watch and listen in voyeuristic and helpless quietude. The result is inescapably gripping.

The human state is not immune from the pain of breaking up and each of the four singers - Bethany Eloise, April Foster, Adelaide Greenaway and Lara Vosicano (who replaced an indisposed Lisa Lally) - brought out a spectrum of touching and nuanced colours along the way. In particular, Bethany Eloise, who opens the work, immediately draws you in with her engaging style, beautifully articulated and attentively emotive recitative as well as richness of singing. The French-sung libretto is surtitled in English but their inconveniently high-placed position stretches the neck away from the scenario.

The risk of compartmenting such a specifically solo-focused work into 4 sections is that cohesiveness and focus could easily collapse. In this case, with no space for more than a small audience of 10 who stand, sit or kneel in a tight and up-close arrangement, each brief part highlighted the voyeuristic nature of the experiences. It also provides these 4 young singers an opportunity to share the rigorous demands of the role.

Adelaide Greenaway, La voix humaine
As an odalisque-like figure just an arm's reach away and as up close as it gets, "Elle's" private world of hot pink vibrancy, an obsession with fluffy stuffed animals and a mood of soft sensuality describe the first of the 3m x 4m rooms. Moving from one room to the next, the intensity of pink diminishes until the last room wears a dominant white palette, metaphorically suggesting that the emotional toll on "Elle" has gradually drained her of purpose. Pam Christie's skill on keyboard and James Penn's narrative-friendly musical direction provide simple and adequate backing from out in the corridor.

The final moments lose power when "Elle" twists the telephone cord dangerously yet almost playfully around her neck but the overall tragedy is starkly realised. You leave the last room and walk past each of the other three spying on each of these young women frozen in their little rooms of soft-lit pinks. It might even remind you of the plush window boxes in Amsterdam's red light district. Perhaps this "Elle" had wanted so much to be loved that, when its no longer there, the pain and humiliation is too great. Whichever way you think of it, this is a Fringe Festival show worth looking and standing for.


La voix humaine
BK Opera
Carlton Club
Level 4, 193 Bourke Street, Melbourne
Until 30th September.


Production Photos: courtesy of Kate Millett

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thoughtfully realised and eerily captivating - Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre's Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets


Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets isn't a new work but it looks and feels piquantly so in Victoria Opera and Malthouse Theatre's latest co-production and presented as part of the 2017 Melbourne Festival. Premiered in Hamburg in 1990 with music and lyrics by Tom Waits and text by William S. Burroughs, the story has its roots in the dark and unsettling German folktale which the Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber set to a luscious and haunting score back in 1821, in the opera Der Freischütz.

Dimity Shepherd (Käthchen) and Kanen Breen (Wilhelm) 
The marriage of the daughter of a celebrated huntsman is dependent on her suitor having the finest shooting skills as dictated by her father. The young man she is in love with is desperate to succeed - to the point of entering into a pact with the devil, who supplies magic bullets in order that he accurately shoots his target. But the bargain goes horribly wrong as the price paid is a shot that takes his lover's life. 

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets runs without interval in a one-hour 40-minute showcase of diverse musical styles while employing a rich and rhyming poetic beat in its structure. In it, a marvellous and ingenious confluence of ideas are reflected which somehow - perhaps in the way in which the sense of the operatic is threaded through and refracted - manage to make the work apt material for an opera company. Including German Weimar cabaret, vaudeville, blues ballads, rock, American western and European-derived Klezmer tunes, in Waits' version, the sense of desperation, of addiction, of choice and repercussion is powerfully visceral. Under the direction of Matthew Lutton, the work is wild and eerily captivating.


Meow Meow as Pegleg
From the start, the audience is lured into a carnival sideshow of sorts, tempted by the devil, Pegleg, with the lyrics "We'll have a gay old time", and on which Cabaret sensation Meow Meow stamps her indelible dark charm. Zoë Atkinson's design mimics an ingenious oversized shooting gallery, a three-walled rectangular room that surprises with its many concealed hatches and forest-game cutouts, painted backdrops and overhead cables on which painted story-enhancing sheets are drawn in and out on. Within it all, Lutton's characters - in their befitting half-tailored colour-identifying costumes - move in captivating, quasi-mechanical ways that metaphorically make all of them a potential target, the devil's target, as well as compliment the rhythm of the text. 

Like the sideshow nature of the setting (beautifully lit by Paul Jackson's lightning design), each scene often holds its own as a unique sketch, yet together they mould the storytelling marvellously with much credit to Lutton. No less captivating is the talent that each individual performer brings to the stage. 

As the devil-host of her own entertainment, Meow Meow, the limping Pegleg, licks her text with seductive flair and sings in lush-toned and superbly crafted ricocheting style as she slyly eyes her domain. In a fabulously layered performance, Kanen Breen's agile tenor, warm sensitivity  and unstoppable showmanship come in full-strength quality as the desperate young man Wilhelm, hilariously contorting his way on the road to mastering his rifle, writhing his body through desperation and wearing his heart on his sleeve in love. 

Käthchen, his bride-to-be, is touchingly portrayed with the rich and deliciously phrased mezzo-soprano of Dimity Shepherd. In a memorable highlight in duet with Breen, Shepherd sings the dreamy and poignant "The Briar and the Rose" and later, as she waits for Wilhelm's return, brings enthralling intensified anguish to "I’ll Shoot the Moon".

Dimity Shepherd (Käthchen), Richard Piper (Bertram), Jacqui Dark (Anne)
The commanding and earthy-voiced Richard Piper adds a star to his copious theatrical credits as Käthchen's insistent father, Bertram. At his side, richly hued mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark imbues balanced control and tender motherly guard as his wife, Anne, and impresses as her penetrating top notes ring through the ensemble.

In a supporting role, Paul Capsis is a blazing sideshow unto himself with his dazzling high-wired falsetto and quirkily animated actions. Le Gateau Chocolat, in deep oratorial authority as the Duke/Old Uncle, and Winston Hillyer's brawny Robert round out the superb cast.

In the pit, 10 musicians forming the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra play with keen attentiveness to Phoebe Briggs' musical direction to create a music breathing with dynamism, unspoiled by the odd moment of slackening brass on opening night. Jethro Woodward's sharp soundscape design adds further depth to this mysteriously conjured world.

Beware the choices made and the pacts bargained when, perhaps unknowingly, there's a price to pay. This time, Victorian Opera's fearless approach in presenting opera-wayward work has paid off well. Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a thoughtfully realised, engrossing and unashamedly flamboyant piece of powerful theatre.


Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets
Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre
Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse 
Until 7th October.


Production Photographs:  Pia Johnson Photography

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Gertrude Opera serves a Triple Treat in a perky and entertaining romp


Surviving on the lowest of budgets, Gertrude Opera makes smart and efficient choices in the delivery of good quality work, often with neglected pieces that larger companies might eschew. Three rarely performed one-act operas spanning three centuries in a two-hour evening featuring eight young singers tucked away in an intimate performance space in North Melbourne - arriving at this Triple Treat feels like a clandestine gathering of sorts. It turns out to be all very harmless and entertaining.

All sung in English starting with Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (1786), followed by Menotti's The Telephone (1947) and concluding with Ravel's Le Docteur Miracle (1857), what links these historically isolated works is their ludicrous comic charm and farcical bite. That's not to say that they don't zoom in on the complexity and tensions of human relationships, something these developing singers handled commendably.

Darcy Carroll as The Composer and Bethany Hill as Tonina
And though seemingly disparate in musical style, all three are connected by a delightful perkiness that music director Brian Castles-Onion conveyed expertly on piano. A small band might be asking too much but there were times when that's exactly what the ear wanted, so as to texturise and shape the music and provide greater warmth for the voices.

Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words) sets up the evening admirably, a short work concerned with artistic frictions between a composer, poet and two singers after the commission of an opera. Directed with vitality and cheek by Jeremy Stanford, the space bloomed with larger-than-life spiritedness. Mezzo-soprano Allegra Giagu shook the room in sumptuous and dominant style as the elegant haughty diva, Eleonora, making her grand audition a hilarious highlight as she sings of maternal love, clutching her 'required boys' for the aria, first to bosom, then to groin.

Her boys are none other than the Composer, Darcy Carroll, and Poet, Josh Erdelyi-Gotz, both of whom are sorting out their own argument in bursts of prankish charm. Carroll does an excellent job with his firm and smoky bass-baritone alongside Erdelyi-Gotz who sports an appealing light baritone but which loses clarity at the top.

Bright soprano Bethany Hill's exaggerated and frenetic portrayal of the poet's zany girlfriend Tonina, who also wants a lead, comes at the expense of timing and fluidity but that all changed when she took to Menotti's The Telephone as Lucy in a strong and vivid performance. It all ends smoothly as each of the characters settle into there place and in which the final ensemble comes together in well-harmonised voice.

The sketched succinctness and power that The Telephone's story tells is both affecting and comic and to which director Greta Nash neatly gives focus to. Ben is desperately trying to propose to Lucy before he departs on a trip but Lucy's addiction to her phone prevents the question being asked. Menotti's tricky but melodious score is a gem for which Carroll reconvenes with Hill in a sensitive and insightful interpretation that replaces the 1940s telephone with a smartphone and its original domestic setting for a table at a fine restaurant. Its construct is all too relevant today as the battle between technology and face-to-face socialisation impacts all of us.

Darcy Carroll as Ben and Bethany Hill as Lucy in The Telephone
On piano, Castles-Onion inserts a smartphone ringtone, Carroll makes a guy look like a doormat most convincingly (again bringing quality and emotion to the table in voice) and Hill's sparkling performance as the characterful and self-absorbed Lucy is a hoot. On each call she is on, the score's mood and style shift and, with it, Hill's versatility and confidence compliments them gorgeously. Ben finally gets to propose after his departure has virtually gone unnoticed. It works a treat on FaceTime.

At around 50 minutes and the longest of the works, Ravel's Doctor Miracle, is a quirky story based on commedia dell'arte principles. A young lass is forbidden by her father (the mayor), to marry a man of the military but her soldier lover manages to outsmart him through disguise, first in gaining access to the household as the hired servant Pasquin, then as the quack, Dr Miracle, who is called to the house after the mayor believes himself to be poisoned after being served a foul omelette by Pasquin.

Once again, director Jeremy Stanford infuses the plot with energy and interest, this time adding loads of cheesiness that also goes appropriately into making the opera's famous "Omelette quartet" the absurdity it is. Then again, French cuisine is to be venerated. There's a little trepidation on the part of the cast, whose timing could be sharpened, and diction is sometimes fuzzy, but the comic flavour nonetheless cuts through on this rather over-egged and frothy romp.

From dressing gown to dressed up, sweet soprano Juliet Dufour bounces about with soubrettish delight as the young lass, Laurette, her lyric polish beautifying the pre-omelette quartet deliciously in her romantic aria, "Do not scold me for it". As her lover Silvio, warm tenor Hew Wagner took to disguise more successfully as the slovenly, buffoon-like Pasquin than the creepy, warlock-like Dr Miracle. Bass-baritone Henry Shaw cleverly paces his performance from stiff pomposity to blood vessel-bursting rage as the Mayor and sings with skilful fluidity and staunchness throughout his range. As Veronique, his gold-digging wife and Laurette's step-mother, soprano Lisa Parker is dressed to impress with champagne in hand at breakfast and sings with pleasing richness.

After the shining ensemble finale and the enthusiastic applause for the evening's complete cast, what wasn't expected was a further show of singing when a "Happy Birthday to You" was sung to Allegra Giagu. They did a fine job of that too.


Gertrude Opera
130 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne
Until 20th September


Production Photographs: courtesy of Gertrude Opera