Friday, June 16, 2017

Pinchgut Opera's visually succulent, musically beaming and conceptually clever Baroque Triple Bill


In the 15 years since Sydney's Pinchgut Opera have been successfully building its reputation in bringing rarely performed 18th century operatic works to the stage, the challenges might not have been greater than those faced in staging a triple bill, their latest new production that opened on Thursday night.

Lauren Zolezzi as Cupid and Richard Anderson as Anacréon
Taking two mid-18th century French actes-de-ballet or single act ballet-operas by Jean-Philippe Rameau, Anacréon and Pigmalion, and sandwiching between them a popular intermezzo in its day, Leonardo Vinci's Erighetta e Don Chilone, Artistic Director and conductor Erin Helyard's attempt to capture the spirit of that "...hothouse atmosphere of Paris in the 1750s", goes far in perhaps questioning the merits or not of an Enlightenment debate. From my perspective, the heat was somewhat lacking. Nonetheless, it's a visually succulent and musically beaming exposition of long-forgotten works that focus on the universal theme of love and its accompanying ungraspable quirks, of wine, art and self in an evening, including interval, that ends in under 140 minutes.

Director Crystal Manich's clever concept to unite the three disparate works in contemporary times - one that includes lots of period costume dress-ups - gets off to a clear enough start. Beginning with Anacréon, the action unfolds in preparation for a Gala du Musée - as Alicia Clements' handsome and classically inspired set design informs us - with a cast of gallery-related characters crisscrossing and coming together, often in neatly choreographed tableaux, over the course of a day that ends in a joyous pairing of lovers in Pigmalion. It's a bold and creative move that, while solving the City Recital Hall's limitations in dealing with complex theatrical stagings by relying on its single set construct, adds complexity to the otherwise straightforward nature of each individual work. Without prior knowledge of Manich's restructuring and alignment of the characters, the goings on could be difficult to decipher. On the other hand, together as a whole, they do leave one memorable taste behind. Studying the program notes was beneficial, as was the informative pre-opera talk.

Taryn Fiebig as Erighetta and Richard Anderson as Don Chilone
Billed as "a riotous evening of fabulous French opera", it was only the milked cheekiness in Vinci's Italian intermezzo that came anywhere near the riotous. Melanie Liertz's rich mix of punchy costumes and Matthew Marshall's evocative lighting changes made a dazzling good show but, apart from its few highlights, a dreamy-like Anacréon lumbered along despite the swift comings and goings in the gallery and the poetry of Pigmalion rarely transformed into theatrical magic - perhaps more to do with the esoteric nature of the libretti.

Amongst what seems a truckload of interesting museum pieces and lavish party props that move in and out, its Lauren Zolezzi, as Cupid, who lit up the stage with both unbound youthful energy and supple-voiced charm. Taking her bright, delicately filigreed and assured soprano to stepladder heights, Zolezzi's tomboyish Cupid was the star of the night in which love itself triumphs. She's also the daughter of the wealthy gallery donor, played by Richard Anderson in the pivotal title role as the self-important Anacréon, marginally undone by breathing inconsistencies, but coming to confident bass vocal life, farts and all, in the play-within-a-play as the hypochondriacal Don Chilone.

Plush soprano Taryn Fiebig is the other standout, demonstrating her well-honed versatility in both the serious, as the Priestess of Bacchus in Anacréon and The Statue in Pigmalion, and the comic, as the cheekily conniving Erighetta in Vinci's intermezzo. She's the stiff and stylish Academic and the donor's ex-wife, who the bartender has his eye on. This bartender, Agathocle in Anacréon, is also a sculptor and presents his figurative masterwork to the gallery, no doubt bearing semblance to the Academic under its period costumed depiction.

Lauren Zolezzi, Taryn Fiebig and Samuel Boden as Pigmalion
With a warm and lyrically attractive tenor, Samuel Boden served up a convincing Agathocle but, as the sculptor Pigmalion, passion and determination headed a tad wayward, as did projection, before his more compelling slow and tender encounter with the living statue. In his vocal armoury is an effortlessness in phrased ornamentations and they leave their mark indelibly.

Soprano Morgan Balfour sang with clarity and beauty as Pigmalion's rejected lover and gallery cleaner, Céphise, and Allegra Giagu elegantly took the floor as the donor's wife Lycoris. They were joined by a retinue of fine, clarion vocals from an ensemble of gallery staff (Alistair Cooper-Golec, Julian Curtis, Heather Fletcher and Mariya Tkachenko), a florist (Clara Solly-Slade) and security guard (Owen Little).

Best of all was the music, with the always reliable warmth and sumptuousness of sound of Pinchgut Opera's Orchestra of the Antipodes in top form, performing with verve and passion to a now clearly devoted audience. They have a totally committed and exciting interpreter of music in their midst to thank for that, in conductor Erin Helyard, who was equally as animated and expert on harpsichord.

At the end of the evening, despite how marvellous it looked, how lovely it sounded and how clever the concept was, I didn't feel particularly enthralled by the total product and perhaps needed to taste something a little less spiced and a little more meaty. But at its centre was a perfectly plump and delicious treat.


Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 20th June.

Production Photos: Courtesy of Pinchgut Opera

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Australian Ballet's inventive and captivating Nutcracker – The Story of Clara: Australian Arts Review

Published online at Australian Arts Review 4th June, 2017.

http://artsreview.com.au/nutcracker-the-story-of-clara-2/


It’s 25 years since Graeme Murphy’s inventive reimagining of The Nutcracker for The Australian Ballet premiered in Melbourne and, after Friday night’s opening for its fourth revival, it’s sure to captivate a new audience with its plethora of evocative scenes, comic Aussie touches and in bringing substance to the fascinating background story of ballet in Australia.

Retold as Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, Tchaikovsky’s glorious score remains intact, transposed convincingly on a reverse telling of Clara’s life – an ageing Russian ballet dancer who had danced around the world for the Ballets Russes before settling in Melbourne. For all its entrenched European foundations, the work is transformed with a moving and close-at-hand relevance that speaks of our resilient and deeply affected immigrants.

It’s 1950s suburban Australia, a Hills Hoist in the grassed backyard where the footy is kicked and far from the tumultuous revolutionary past that Clara had fled. From Clara’s humble post-war home where she entertains her gregarious veteran ballet friends with vodka, cake and entertaining dance, to the battlefields where her soldier-lover is shot, from the ballet school to the world stages, imperial balls and her arrival amongst the happy-go-lucky Aussie sailors, Kristian Fredrikson’s stylish set and costume designs serve the story wondrously without overpowering the clarity of characterisation.

Much use is made of projected black and white film footage that races across a scrim and, while adding energetic fire and adrenaline on the one hand, at times it camouflages the dance on the other – especially frustrating as Bolshevik Rats scurry and attack in battle in near darkness. Nonetheless, Murphy and Fredrikson’s concept shines through powerfully.

Precision wasn’t always achieved in the cleverly structured and dynamic formations, but what stands out in Murphy’s eclectic choreographic hand is the lean towards sensitivity, boldness and beauty in the portrayal of individuals, pairs and ensembles, over gratuitous showy athleticism. In this, the dancers delivered amply.

Ai-Gul Gaisina, who joined The Australian Ballet in 1973, dances Clara the elder with inviting gestural tenderness before she falls unwell and exhausted, taken over in her dream by the effortlessly graceful Leanne Stoymenov as the passionate and headstrong, career-building Clara. Stoymenov’s magnetic presence, expressed heart and fluid technique come in one binding force that brings Clara’s past to riveting life, all the while sharing the limelight generously. Among her highlights are two beautiful pas de deux – one full of romantic fortitude with the impressive Kevin Jackson as her dashing Beloved Officer, the other in accomplished grandeur alongside the equally imposing Jarryd Madden as the handsome ‘Nutcracker’ Prince.

Jessica Stratton-Smith deserves much credit too for her sparkling performance as the young Clara and who features in one of the most delightful scenes – at the ballet school of St Petersburg’s Imperial Conservatoire amongst a budding group of dedicated youngins before a clever transformation via the studio mirrors takes her to adulthood.

There were moments when I thought that Murphy could have got away with anything because Tchaikovsky draws you into his intoxicating rhythms and melodies so easily. Orchestra Victoria showed expert musicianship and stamina in the pit. At their lead, conductor Nicolette Fraillon seemed to interpret the score with overly tender-heartedness that occasionally failed to materialise into dramatic richness – a reading, uncharacteristically, not particularly Russian in flavour – but still in control of foregrounding Tchaikovsky’s brilliance.

Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara is ballet as meaningful theatre and soulful dance as a vehicle for storytelling without words, created in a way that gives the impression of having spoken its conversations over its entirety. That’s about as close as you can get to feeling completely absorbed in the art of ballet. Let it shine for the next generation.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Season continues to 10 June 2017
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

For more information, visit: www.australianballet.com.au for details.

Image: Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov feature in Nutcracker – The Story of Clara – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Paul Selar

Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov - photo Jeff Busby

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Gertrude Opera gives Menotti's The Consul perfected pedestal-piece punch


It's almost 70 years since Gian Carlo Menotti's first full length opera, The Consul, premiered in New York in 1950 and it still resonates with power and freshness in a world increasingly divided by fear. As composer and librettist, Menotti based the story of The Consul on a 1947 newspaper report about the suicide of a Polish emigrant after being refused a visa to the USA.

Karen Van Spall, Linda Thompson as Magda Sorel and Michael Lampard
Three years ago, with limited resources at its disposal, Melbourne's Gertrude Opera presented a compelling case for the work's modern-day relevance in a production bolstered by Theresa Borg's incisive direction. In a revival of Menotti's "...nightmare thriller of an opera", with its striking, richly characterised and expertly sung portrayal, director Greg Carroll has achieved the same splendid results, punching home the desperation for survival, change and betterment in the face of oppression on one side and bureaucratic processes on the other. Poignantly, it also reflects the hardline political crackdown and inhospitable treatment and scrutiny of refugees seeking asylum in our own backyard. When little support and no answers are given, we too become responsible for the tragic outcomes.

This time, the work is performed in Gertrude Opera's current temporary warehouse-style lodgings to an audience of around 80. The setting easily matches its successful presentation at Fortyfivedownstairs in 2014, with fine balance and firm resonance of sound pleasurably filling the space.

Characterised by its woven mix of dissonance and melody, angst and delicacy, Menotti's music easily drives the narrative forward without overpowering it. With only Peter Baker's expert and dexterous grand piano accompaniment to set the musical framework, conductor Rick Prakhoff's unflinching attention to drawing out shape and texture paid satisfying dividends on opening night.

On a low black platform, two rudimentary chairs, a stove/cabinet, a tall bookcase and a stepladder form the sparsely furnished stage with a backdrop featuring a translucent plastic curtain, behind which non-performing cast members rest in character. The late Peter Corrigan’s scant set design is an evocative interpretation of the impoverished circumstances in which Magda Sorel, wife of her political freedom fighting husband John, his mother and her infant child live. With a quick turn of the stove and a secretary presiding from a tall bookcase of papers, the platform doubles as the consulate office waiting room of grey-faced visa applicants. Greg Carroll’s lighting design adds atmosphere and mystery while well-delineated costumes dress hard, unsophisticated times in this drab, unidentifiable European police state.

Leading by example, Artistic Director and assured, wide-ranging soprano, Linda Thompson, reprises the role of Magda Sorel - one she makes so heartfelt - moving with urgency, determination and stealth as Magda deals with a withering home, persistent police and an indifferent consul secretary in her quest for a visa for her family to leave. Culminating in a time-stopping and magnificently haunting "To This We've Come", in which she sings with dour pain and defiance after being refused permission to see the consul once again, Thompson stamped her mark indelibly on the performance.

D. Carroll, J. Erdelyi-Gotz, J. Dufour, J. Wasley and B. De Poi
As her husband John, Eugene Raggio returns with greatly improved physical acting that effortlessly ricochets off his fraught situation and utilises his attractively dusky baritone impressively. In a richly layered and focussed performance, Karen Van Spall is magnetic as John's salt-of-the-earth Mother as she relentlessly clutches her stricken grandchild. Rumbling baritone Michael Lampard's cold and automatic brutality as the Secret Police adds greatly to the festering tension. Rose Nolan gives stellar, deeply carved mezzo-soprano richness and emphatic angular diction to her pursed-lipped Secretary. Light comedy brings momentary relief to the waiting visa applicants courtesy of Jason Wasley's robust-voiced and entertaining Persian-costumed Magician.

The 2017 Gertrude Opera Studio Artists filled the smaller roles glowingly with Darcy Carroll's steadfast baritone having notable impact as the kindly Mr Kofner along with luscious soprano Juliet Dufour's patient but weary Anna Gomez. Joshua Erdelyi-Gotz's Assan, Lisa Parker's Foreign Woman and Brigette De Poi's Vera Boronel complete the ensemble of 11, all contributing drama and meaning to this superb and chilling work.

Never underestimate the power hand-to-mouth opera delivers. Gertrude Opera's current season of The Consul reaches pedestal perfection. I only wish those patrons of large-scale opera could take a detour to experience it.


THE CONSUL
Gertrude Opera
130 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne
Until 2nd June

Production Photos: Lyz Turner-Clark 



Sunday, May 21, 2017

Opera Australia's psychologically commanding and seductive King Roger: Herald Sun Review

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/opera-australias-king-roger-is-profoundly-compelling-and-mysteriously-beautiful/news-story/302dd5f1574ca37d26e877dd19bb8ae6
Published online at Herald Sun 22nd May and in print 23rd May


IT’S not often an opera comes along that sidesteps sentimental and emotional foci and zeros in on the psychological so seductively and commandingly, but Polish composer Karol Syzmanowski’s explorative and concise work King Roger achieves just that.

If you’re unfamiliar with it you’re not alone but, once seen, it will brand its combination of penetrating music and story of wrestled desire and personal torment well beyond the final curtain.

Michael Honeyman as King Roger, Lorina Gore as Roxana
In Opera Australia’s new production — co-produced with London’s Royal Opera directed by Kasper Holten (revival director Matthew Barclay) — Syzmanowski’s titular figure is revealed in stone as a monumental towering head centred within a lofty coliseum as symbol of the king’s power and subject of public scrutiny. Tensions boil as a people conditioned by draconian religious strictures demand blood when the mysterious Shepherd arrives preaching freedom of Dionysian pleasures causing Roger’s fight between resistance and desire.

Holten extrapolates the text with such striking clarity, underpinning the composer’s own infused sexual identity, and creates a vision so enduring with Steffen Aafing’s sets and costumes and Jon Clark’s joyless lighting, that it’s hard to imagine its original 12th century Sicilian setting giving it the substance Holten does — an austere place costumed in a time alluding to Syzmanowski’s 1920s Northern Europe.

The head revolves for Act 2 to reveal an industrial-like network of stairs. Holten literally takes us into Roger’s mind and we’re churned about in his psychological turmoil of desire, entangled in the sexual urges of near-naked writhing dancers in a homoerotic dream/reality.

Act 3 is more ambiguous. The head is gone, Roger’s wife, Roxana, has joined the Shepherd’s mass of followers and books are burned in revolt. Consumed by the Shepherd’s spell, Roger has a cryptic epiphany in a finale that questions what it is but, potently, how we manage desire within context.

Dominica Matthews, Arthur Espiritu, Gennadi Dubinsky and OA Chorus
Exotic Middle-Eastern threads, impressionist lucidity and tearing expressionist strokes flourish from Syzmanowski’s adventuresome mind in a score of luscious beauty. Orchestra Victoria’s adroitness and conductor Andrea Molino’s resolute understanding of the music on opening night showed despite the weight occasionally bearing on lower vocal reaches.

Steadfast baritone Michael Honeyman’s robustly buttressed performance and solid grasp of Roger’s taunted psyche and situational tug of war was luminous. Liquid-warm tenor Arthur Espiritu coolly captivated as the enigmatic Shepherd. The gentle outstretched reaches between the two, the Shepherd’s suggestive brush of the stone head’s lips and Roger’s beguiled looks all add depth to Holten’s well-conceived details.

Radiant soprano Lorina Gore exuded crystalline elegance as Roger’s overlooked and unfulfilled wife, Roxana. James Egglestone’s genial adviser to Roger, Edrisi, Dominica Matthews’ unbending Deaconess and Gennadi Dubinsky’s lordly Archiereios handsomely satisfied in smaller roles and Opera Australia Chorus rang out superbly with combined solemnity and agitation.

King Roger is as profoundly compelling as it is mysteriously beautiful and it’s exactly the type of work that adds power and piquancy to Opera Australia’s stage.


KING ROGER

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until May 27

Rating: four stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Opera Australia and John Frost's meticulously recreated and effervescent My Fair Lady opens in Melbourne


Between the uncouth and the upper crust, Eliza Doolittle has much to navigate and stomach in her quest for betterment in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's sparkling iconic musical, My Fair Lady. It's a journey that's both touchingly portrayed and brought to effervescent life in Opera Australia and John Frost's impressive new show based on the original 1956 Moss Hart directed production. And giving vibrant and sensitive directorial clout from start to finish, as Broadway's first 'I'm a good girl I am' Eliza Doolittle, Dame Julie Andrews has wasted not a stage moment in setting the story alight with her spirited cast, including Christopher Gattelli's effective task-driven choreography that integrates without overpowering.

Ensemble, Ascot Scene Act One, My Fair Lady
Sydney and Brisbane have already enjoyed its spectacularity but when it opened at Melbourne's ornate Regent Theatre on Tuesday night, it was as if a much-hyped world premiere had arrived to give Eliza Doolittle's story her most gracious home, be it an oversized one that distant occupants might need to pick up their own Ascot Racecourse field glasses for.

The meticulous recreation of the original doesn't preclude the vast amounts of creativity that have gone into bringing the work back to the stage and the supervising design team deserve huge credit for the brilliant work done to resurrect set designer Oliver Smith's intricate locales and Cecil Beaton's lavish costumes. From the dingy backstreets of Covent Garden to Henry Higgins' capacious but cosy study, to the prim-penned stiffness of Ascot and the glamorous chandelier-studded embassy ballroom, the Edwardian sets and costumes tantalise and beguile. Scene after scene effortlessly moves along with their copious details and quirkily expressed perspectives all dazzling under Richard Pilbrow's lighting.

Sometimes, recreating a work truthfully has more to say the second time round than it did in its day and My Fair Lady seems to do just that. Six decades on, Eliza Doolittle's audience will be more informed - the swinging 60s followed the premiere with the sexual revolution and the women's movement's fight for sexual equality continuing to resonate in its ongoing struggle to make equality a reality in all aspects of society today.

On the backstreets of Covent Garden, Act One, My Fair Lady
We can look at Henry Higgins with greater distaste for the sour assaults he lashes on Eliza while treating her like a lab-rat in a social experiment to prove he can transform her from a 'guttersnipe' flower girl to a duchess in six months. We can see Eliza dreaming big, abused by class and sexual differences yet nudging through with strength and free will. It makes Eliza's return to Higgins in the final scene feel compromised but by the time the curtain goes down on its foggy ending, Eliza seems to be the one who'll be giving Higgins much-needed training.

In it all, Andrews has bitten in deeply to highlight the emotional connections without resorting to sentimental sugar-coating. In her service is a tuned, character-driven cast led by two exceptionally solid leads.

Through and through, as Eliza, Australian musical star Anna O'Byrne gives an enticingly sophisticated performance as she transforms convincingly from unkempt common flower girl to elegant fair lady. Layers of natural charm accompany O'Byrne's performance and, whenever she sings, she does so following in the great Andrews tradition with a keen sense of expressive outlay and gleaming purity of voice. Whether it be the daintily melodic "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" or the hearty ferocity of "Just You Wait and Show Me", O'Byrne's ability to take the text, mould it and dance with it is a delight to watch, especially so as Higgins' frazzled specimen persevering in mastering the elocution of "The Rain in Spain".

English stage and screen actor, Charles Edwards, twinkles as a perfect paradoxical, blindly misogynistic and eccentric Professor Henry Higgins. Diction-clear and authoritatively savvy with sing-speak, Edwards effortlessly captures his audience as his Higgins' depth of intellect and lack of maturity and compassion challenge in keeping oneself from biffing him a beauty for his gross insensitivity. The spark Edwards creates on stage alongside O'Byrne is a cracker and, though it comes late, his Higgins' softening heart coyly peers through.

Embassy Ballroom Scene, Act One, My Fair Lady
Colonel Pickering, Higgins' gentlemanly chum, is superbly styled in the hands of Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Veteran stage legend Reg Livermore brings cartloads of energy to the indecorous Alfred Doolittle with jollity and cheekiness pouring out in pleasingly raw song in "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me To The Church On Time".

Robyn Nevin puts high polish to Mrs Higgins' plum aristocratic airs and no-nonsense sensibility, Deirdre Rubenstein comfortably warms the house as Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, and as the love struck Freddy, Mark Vincent's melting warmth and resonance make a big impression with a heartfelt "On the Street Where You Live".

On opening night, dutifully supporting the cast, ample musical richness and vitality wafted from the pit under musical director Guy Simpson as he led a meticulous, primed and luscious-sounding 22-piece orchestra. Michael Waters' sound design added final touches of finesse.

The fusion of artistic and creative elements that make Opera Australia and John Frost's My Fair Lady so special will continue to enamour its audience just as the runaway success of the 1956 Broadway production did. Only, we are hopefully more ready to embrace the equality of the sexes.


MY FAIR LADY
Opera Australia and John Frost
Regent Theatre, Melbourne
Until 29th July


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Two cleverly threaded and ardently sung works in Opera Australia's emotionally vivid Cav and Pag: Herald Sun Review

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/opera-australia-presents-mascagnis-cavalleria-rusticana-and-leoncavallos-pagliacci-in-a-double-bill/news-story/5e804c4d3602de8b0414395064cd724a

Published online at Herald Sun Melbourne on 11th May and in print 12th May.


OFT-paired in a double bill, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892) are fused tightly as one in Opera Australia’s emotionally vivid and stirring new production to Melbourne by Italian director Damiano Michieletto.

Popularly referred to as Cav and Pag, both works were originally set in Italy’s 19th century south where jealousy, revenge and murder erupt under the heavy air of religious festivity — Cav’s Easter morning in a Sicilian village, Pag’s Feast of the Assumption in Calabria.

Dragana Radakovic, Dominica Matthews, Diego Torre and OA Chorus
In Michieletto’s gritty reality, updated to a late 20th century singular setting, there is no censorship on violence, the characterisation is solid and the details employed that trickle through his worn rural Italian village suggest that tensions are spawning elsewhere about town. Where the price paid for infidelity is high, men are quick to throw a fist, alcohol fuels rage, women are victimised and religion is no innocent bystander.

Paolo Fantin’s spatially diverse sets revolve frequently to carry the action swiftly forward. Cav centres about the village bakery (run by Turrido’s mother, Mama Lucia) and its facing square, then transformed into a village hall and dressing room for Pag. Carla Teti’s costumes are place-perfect and Alessandro Carletti’s lighting adds austerity to a community harbouring deep and dark undertones.

The posters go up for Pagliacci’s upcoming performance in Cav as Pag’s Nedda and Silvio have their first encounter. Then, during the famous and reflective intermezzo that releases some of the tension, Nedda and Silvio meet in amorous rapture. Later, during Pag’s intermezzo, Cav’s Mamma Lucia and Santuzza put the past behind in a reconciliatory embrace.

The intertwining threads work marvellously to consolidate the two works’ similar themes but it is the exquisitely tuned cast that keep the tension alive.

Diego Torre as Canio and the Opera Australia Chorus, Pagliacci
Every new role tenor Diego Torre challenges comes with more fluid acting to accompany his richly lubricated vocals that resonated securely on opening night. Torre took on the rarity of performing two hot-tempered characters — as the stark-real, emotionally coiled and cheating Turiddu in Cav and the cheated on and vengeful Canio in Pag — and nailed the pair compellingly.

With full range strength and superb emotional shading, Dragana Radakovic was riveting as a hysterically fraught Santuzza. There’s years of life, local wisdom and heart in Dominica Matthews’ assuredly sung Mamma Lucia and Anna Princeva is intensely focused as she poignantly conveyed the frustration and dreamer in Nedda with her succulent and shapely soprano.

José Carbó’s solid, incisive and authoritative performance as Cav’s slick Alfio and Pag’s detestable Tonio, Sian Pendry’s seductive and shameless Lola, Samuel Dundas’s handsome and romantic Silvio and John Longmuir’s versatility as Bepe all fuelled the fire alongside an uplifting Opera Australia Chorus of villagers.

Patches of nervous brass aside, Orchestra Victoria worked superbly under conductor Andrea Licata’s sumptuously coaxed reading to include ample climactic vigour.

When the curtain goes up, Cav’s chilling fateful tragedy is immediate. By the time it goes down on Pag, you’ll be completely embroiled.



CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA/I PAGLIACCI by Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until May 20

Rating: four stars


Production Pictures: Keith Saunders.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

An evening of outstanding bel canto bliss with Victorian Opera's La sonnambula in concert


A near-packed Hamer Hall set the scene for a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula on Saturday evening that sent shock waves of rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Not only did Bellini's semiseria opera shower its ostentatious and sublime music on its eager-ear local audience, it was presented with ample and compelling dramatic acuity surpassing expectations of what a concert performance gives. For this, from an assembled cast delivering a gloriously sung evening, Artistic Director and conductor Richard Mills deserves congratulations. That, and bringing sensational Australian soprano Jessica Pratt back to Melbourne to crown the performance in diamond quality.

G. Bradman, R. Hislop, J. Pratt, C. Bárcenas and P. Pecchioli 
La sonnambula continues Victorian Opera's commitment to presenting concert performances of gems from the great library of bel canto works that adorn the repertoire - in 2014 it was Bellini's Norma and I Puritani followed in 2015 in which Jessica Pratt wowed as Elvira.

The opera premiered in Milan in March 1831 (Norma followed before the year was out) and tells an amusing tale driven with intense melodrama by librettist Felice Romani. Sung in Italian with English surtitles, the story centres around the village girl Amina who, after her betrothal ceremony to Elvino, is found asleep in the room of the mysterious stranger, Count Rodolfo, who is staying at the village inn. Of course, the plot thickens - Elvino is outraged, breaks off the engagement and gives his heart back to Lisa, the proprietress of the inn to whom he was formerly betrothed. Amina is bereft but when Rodolfo realises that the villagers' story of a ghost appearing each night is, in fact Amina, a somnambulist, the misunderstanding is cleaned up and a happy ending ensues. Accompanied with such highly elaborate music, this somewhat frivolous story powers a sweet message to never jump to conclusions without adequate proof - or have a very good excuse why you've been found in an admirer's bed when you're engaged to another. How Amina hadn't realised she's a sleepwalker does tend to stretch belief.

It began with a discernible nervous start, taking a little time for the chorus to settle smack on the orchestral line and balance out the layers, but a sense of confidence took over. Mills firmly planted the seeds to support a sumptuous and responsive sounding 50-plus member Orchestra Victoria. That beauty was carried through to a subtly dappled orchestral introduction, the horns and woodwind especially deserving compliments, to Act 2's "Qui la selva è più folta ed ombrosa" and a splendorous and distinctive chorus sang in its wake.

Jessica Pratt as Amina and Carlos Bárcenas as Elvino
When Pratt took to the stage wearing a black bodiced gown of evening blue and long-draped smokey shawl, then catapulted her recitative and cavatina, "Care compagne - Come per me sereno", to extraordinary heights, a palpable change took hold that seemed to guarantee the magnificent night it was to become. Assured, relaxed and commanding a sense of effortless freedom, Pratt embodied the stupendous beauty of voice that places her as a leader in her art and gives the 21st century a new bel canto star. Every smoothly shaped phrase came with an emotively expressed and engaged magnetism that aided in deflecting attention away from her and onto the first joyous, then innocent, wrongly accused and aching-hearted Amina.

Pratt's consummate professionalism shone through via her rapport with her colleagues and commitment to her understated acting while exuding soft and natural elegance befitting her presence as both a star performer and role interpreter. As Act 1 headed towards a colossal finale in which Elvino rejects Amina, Pratt's prowess with the most fragile pianissimo and ability to sustain length of note was a moving experience. From there, Pratt embarked on a blazing display of coloratura fireworks big enough to stun the city. Then, returning in a long black fitted gown in Act 2, Pratt maintained the perfection and natural warmth all the way to the jubilant finale.

Italian bass Paolo Pecchioli was the other standout as Amina's admirer, Count Rodolfo. Suave, rich and cavernous-voiced, Pecchioli's articulate line and dashing flexibility brought many rewarding moments that included a piquantly crafted duet with Pratt as Rodolfo's conscience gets the better of him when alone with the vulnerable sleepwalking Amina.

Searing young tenor Carlos E. Bàrcenas dug deep into his character and projected with large Italianate warmth as the first besotted, then suspicious and incensed Elvino. Bàrcenas continues to pack exciting dynamism and expressivity in the voice with a beautifully controlled vibrato and smooth register shifts. A marginal loss of flesh in the top head voice was heard but it didn't detract from what was a highly commendable performance in which he paired comfortably with Pratt. That pairing was at its finest in Elvino and Amina's pledge of love in Act 1 before the plot's sharp turn.

 Greta Bradman, Roxane Hislop, Jessica Pratt
It was a welcome sight to see Australian soprano Greta Bradman back in Melbourne. As the shady, unprincipled innkeeper Lisa, Bradman's chocolatey-rich soprano and gorgeous use of vibrato added impact to the performance. In Bradman's Act 1 opening, sudden leaps in range came with exaggerated power but as she progressed, the voice became increasingly pliant to reach its most lush in Act 2's "Lasciami: aver compresoassai dovresti", coming with attractive glint and fluttering coloratura.

The ensemble was reinforced solidly by mezzo-soprano Roxane Hislop as Teresa, Amina's affectionate mother. Velvety-dark and sumptuous of voice, Hislop's experience cut through with ease in her portrayal of dignity and staunchness and unflinching attention to detail. As Alessio, Lisa's hapless admirer, young artist Timothy Newton brought robust bass support and held strength in ensemble work. In the smaller role as the notary, Tomas Dalton didn't go unnoticed for his refined tenor display.

Victorian Opera's annual concert opera presentations have become a highlight of Melbourne's opera scene. After La sonnambula was over, I was shaking with excitement, my pulse certainly racing. What might next year bring? I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say another Bellini, the explosive romantic tragedy, I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Fingers crossed.


La Sonnambula
Victorian Opera
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
5th May

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross