Cut-down comedy

GIANNI SCHICCHI

Opera Gold Coast

Helensvale Cultural Centre

Saturday November 30

Daniel Smerdon

                                                                   Daniel Smerdon

Any company takes quite a risk when attempting Puccini’s last completed opera and his only comedy; not because Gianni Schicchi is hard to handle vocally, but more because of the requirement to keep the humour intact and consistent.  Fortunately,  Doug Gehrke’s direction of the work with this Gold Coast ensemble found the laughs and kept them coming, mercifully restrained at the climax where the hero outwits the rest of the cast.  I’ve seen (and heard) better casts in terms of vocal endowment and enjoyed more flashy productions as far as sets and costumes go, yet this presentation left you more than satisfied that you’d come close to the core of this dressed-up true story.

Schicchi is the ultimate con-man: hired by disdainful clients, doing the job, then coming out on top through an admirable volte-face that shows up pretty well everyone else on stage.   Many of us have become used to a very broad level of humour (that can amount to slapstick) applied to this opera – gesture-dependent with characterizations exaggerated to the near-ludicrous and with vocalization torques to match, along with busy orchestras unable to patch their dynamic into the stage’s output.   Several of these problems raised their heads at this Saturday matinee but were not significantly abrasive in effect to ruffle the work’s progress.

Fortunately for the company,  baritone Daniel Smerdon fitted the lead role with excellent panache and a welcome forthrightness of application that every so often found him working almost too hard.   Forget the silly carry-on that typifies pretty well every Schicchi you come across with the disguised Schicchi’s repeated Addio, Firenze warnings and the accompanying missing hand mime; a really fine interpreter can keep your attention in difficult territory, like the longish monologue where the central deceit is being set up.  From his perusal of the discovered will, the quizzing of the relatives, that jubilant exclamation of Ah! Vittoria! vittoria!, then right through the pages from Si corre dal notaio to da afidar l’eternita!, Smerdon sustained our interest, playing out his vocal line’s expressive possibilities and its springing text with the sort of fluency you’d expect to find from a member of a good quality opera house.

Along with the expected changes of mood after his first entrance, Smerdon later came into his own with the final address to the audience, Dittemi voi, signore; here, sensibly given in English as a deft gesture of audience connection, untrammelled by the surtitle screen which had given a fair, if not complete, translation of Forzano’s libretto.

(As an aside, you have to compliment the cast on their textual fidelity; on very few occasions did you feel that the words were being parroted or that a Strine filter was getting in the way.   But then, these days you’re justified in expecting most Australians to be familiar with more than their native tongue; even the Prime Minister can talk in English and in tongues.)

Among the Donati clan, one of the most comfortable in her role was Gaynor Morgan as Zita who showed no fear in the work’s first half where her character dominates the family’s reactions.   Also carrying their characters’ emotional and vocal responsibilities with success were two basses: Vikram Goonawardena playing the senior of the family, ex-Mayor Simone, with an appealingly low-level self-importance; and Kristian Scott as Betto di Signa who carved out a clarion-clear exposition of the mourners’ problem from an apologetic Lo dicono a Signa to a firm declaration of the same rumour that sets his family members into a fury of angry dispossession.

Some presentations underplay this work’s more static passages but it was very pleasing  to see the director give adequate space for that seductive trio E bello/Fa’ presto/Spogliati from Morgan’s Zita, Tania Vadeikis as La Ciesca and Sara Donnelly as Nella, all cosseting their universally acclaimed saviour in a sudden oasis of calm.  It is actually quite a silly passage even if it cleverly sets up Schicchi’s warning of the dangers involved in faking a will.  But these three mixed voices melded together in an appealing combination – a moment of sweetness before all three turn into harpies when they explode after the notary’s exit.

John Nicholson sang a good Rinuccio although he does not yet have a sufficiently strong production for maintaining  his high notes once he has reached them.   The aria Firenze e come un albero fiorito showed signs of stress as the singer attempted to cope with the exuberance of the young man’s declamatory phrase saldie torri snelle that concludes the first verse; and Nicholson was unable to hold on to the final B flat for its minim-plus-a-quaver length.   Still, those self-indulgent duets with Melanie Smart’s Lauretta where the young lovers sing melting farewells to future happiness proved more effective, if not that supple in phrasing.

Smart’s soprano has a thoroughly appropriate lightness of vocal colour for roles like this naive and eminently biddable girl.   But it does come as a shock to be reminded that Lauretta is so young, a 21-year-old who should have no trouble spontaneously falling to her knees to plead with her father.   We’ve become accustomed to hearing O mio babbino caro out of context and taken on by big voices like Fleming and Te Kanawa who impose their own tempi and expression markings; it makes a huge difference to hear it sung as written – without swoops, sudden dynamic lunges and gratuitous portamenti – so that the simplicity of the aria’s appeal  –  to us and to Schicchi  –  is manifest.  Yes, Smart still has a fair amount of development to undergo by way of honing a solid timbre, but the possibilities are evident.

The few remaining cast members carried out their responsibilities without problems – Geof Webb as Gherardo, Aric Kruger as a pretty unobtrusive Marco, Ben Underwood milking the reedy role of Maestro Spinellaccio, Tom Lawson playing a circumspect Ser Amantio notary, and Zander Engel-Bowe as Gherardino, getting abused with little respite by various adults.   What you had to find impressive was the accurate response rate in the opera’s many recitative chains (I heard only one premature entry) and the laudably full-bodied and well-centred choral ensemble work.

Before the original opera got under way, a chorus of about nine female singers gave us a gratuitous Ave Maria which I suspect came from the opening to Suor Angelica, the opera in Puccini’s Il trittico that precedes Gianni Schicchi.   Why was it sung, wherever it came from?   The hymn didn’t add anything to the matinee’s focal work and certainly nonplussed more than a few audience members who came into the Helensvale Centre’s theatre/studio prepared for a comedy.

The production was advertised as having an orchestra in support.   As things turned out, the orchestra was a sextet  –  violin, cello, flute/oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano  –  all anonymous and under the direction of Nicholas Routley: the only person in this whole enterprise whom I’d encountered previously.   This instrumental group presented a fairly solid chamber version of a score that, for half of its length, eschews the full Romantic sweep of Puccini at his most grandiose.   Even with these limited instrumental resources, you gleaned some idea of the original’s whimsicality and bitonal spikiness.

As for the scenery/costumes/lighting factors, nothing obtruded as outlandish or even, in the characters’ dress, related to the work’s intended setting: Florence in 1299; indeed, the cast wore garb that wouldn’t have attracted much attention outside the theatre.   Adam Smart and Craig Vadeikas’ set allowed plenty of space for the Donati personalities to group and disband according to the plot’s movement. without over-playing the opera’s fundamental Tuscan locale which was limited to a central backdrop picture of the Duomo.   So the penultimate scene, where Schicchi’s new house is stripped by indignant failed legatees, came off unexpectedly well with just enough materiel available for pillaging without the stage picture degenerating to the ridiculous.

Of course, you had to make allowances for this presentation which in some respects operated on a bare-bones framework, viz. orchestral/pit support and amateurs occupying some of the minor roles.   But, thanks to a clarity of direction from both Gehrke and Routley, the piece maintained its theatrical and musical integrity, racing past with plenty of vim and making its points about the human condition  –  our venality, hypocrisy, capacity for love, delight in comeuppances  –  and doing so by employing few other mechanisms than Puccini’s vital score and Forzano’s splendidly pointed dialogue.

 

 

 

 

 

Mad, not that bad, little danger

ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE

Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday October 24

Orpheus

Gluck lovers in this country of a certain vintage will remember with pleasure the Opera Australia version from the early 1990s of this ground-breaking opera that featured David Hobson in the demanding haute-contre hero’s role.   As with most assaults on the composer’s chaste, dramatically spartan works,  the production impressed for its stark setting and focus on the hero, who bears the brunt of the labour in Orpheus and Eurydice.  This recent OQ presentation also exercised both the vocal and physical talents of its counter-tenor, Owen Willetts, who worked through the opera with admirable tenacity and the kind of assurance across the part’s range that typifies a top-drawer Baroque expert.

Not that you can nominate Gluck as representing the Baroque: the whole thrust of his theatrical labour was aimed at repudiating excess in operatic matters.  Rather, the composer’s works from this one forward offer a solid path towards stripped-down classicism.  Which makes the premise behind the company’s collaboration with the Circa ensemble more than a little hard to swallow.   It’s all very well pointing to the brilliant craft that went into the staging of Handel, the exuberance of effects created to stir public interest in 17th century French theatres, the willingness of high-flying European musicians to parade their wares with maximum virtuosity.   But Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi pursued a different, individual aim in which ostentation and distraction were outlawed.

All this is known – or should be known –  by every opera-lover, although, in this country, not so much; thanks to the partialities of the national company, for instance,  you’re more likely to be swamped in the glutinous pleasures of Alcina or Giulio Cesare rather than be purged by the chastening directness of Iphigenia in Tauris or Alceste.   Even though Willetts was constrained to execute some distracting physical exercises, his vocal work compensated for a good deal, right from the character’s initial wrenching plaints of Eurydice! to the opera’s celebratory Trionfi Amore finale.

One of the most pleasing elements of Willetts’ work was an absence of histrionics.  Instead of trying to point up words in the substantial recitatives that stimulate the opera’s progress, the singer kept on an even keel, letting Gluck’s vocal line do the underlining for him.   In his first aria, Chiamo il mio ben cosi, the singer seemed to open the later two verses with a subtle change in dynamic married to a fine clarity of production that hit each note right in the centre.   Later, in the Deh placatevi con me face-off with the Furies and Spectres, you had to be impressed by this counter-tenor’s ability to cut across those vivid choral outbursts and to hold his own through plain emotional constraint – again, with  stalwart determination despite the self-pitying suggestions in the libretto.

After this point, the hero is blessed with two superlative arias in Che puro ciel, here treated with care by both counter-tenor and Dane Lam’s pit which featured musicians from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra; and the work’s most popular excerpt, Che faro senza Euridice?, given without those Mozartian excursions at the end of the final stanza and all the more effective without them,  thanks to the piece’s inbuilt dying fall.  Here also, Willetts impressed for the restraint of his interpretation, one that erred on the side of faintness, which is justified by the text which shows Orpheus giving up the struggle.

For some reason, the company decided to give the opera’s other two principal roles of Amor and Eurydice to one soprano, Natalie Christie Peluso.   I suppose this economy came about because neither role has much work, apart from recitative.  Amor has the happily rustic Gli sguardi trattieni aria that comes near the end of Act 1 and she contributes to the opera’s final trio with chorus.  Eurydice gets more meat to work with in the duet Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte, followed by the pseudo-rage aria Che fiero momento where more than a few of us potential Orpheuses would have left the lady to her own devices rather than trying to bring her back to life.   Peluso gave excellent service in both roles with a clear, carrying soprano at ease with the benign major key Amor contributions and following Willetts in negotiating the late-appearing heroine’s alarm and anger without recourse to dynamic explosions or gimmickry.

Lam led his forces through a score that looks simple enough but is full of surprises; not so much in what physical demands are made on the instrumentalists but more in the need to polish the edges of paired phrases that are asymmetrical, and in giving fresh voice to the many repetitions – mainly of dances – that are an integral part of the Orpheus experience.  No over-prominent woodwind, a pleasantly reliable brass choir and an unflagging string ensemble all supplied a well-rounded reading of the opera.   As did the 16-strong choir which showed few signs of that perennial problem that besets Opera Australia choruses in Melbourne: getting out of sync with the pit.

I’ve enjoyed the work of Circa on their visits to Melbourne, mainly working with Paul Dyer’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, although once I took a grand-daughter going through her gymnastic phase to see the company in unadulterated shape at the Victorian Arts Centre’s Playhouse.   With Dyer and his orchestra, Circa simply takes over; the music becomes secondary to the acrobatic/gymnastic display.

Director Yaron Lifschitz put his athletes into the action right from the overture during which a Eurydice clone writhed in a mesh of suspended ropes.  Every dance movement was entrusted to the Circa octet, their movement not necessarily allied to the music accompanying their efforts.

By their nature, the Circa contributions were attention-grabbing, although Lifschitz and his team made a fair effort at integrating both corps, to the extent of having Willetts climb up a set of grouped male backs in mid-aria.   Matters became more than a little confusing when the Circa women wore the same red dress costume as Eurydice/Amor; at one stage, I seem to recall the male acrobats donning dresses, too.   Mind you, comprehension was tight enough towards the night’s end where, in the final bout of recitative, both Amor and Eurydice make individual contributions pretty close together.

Did it work, this attempted fusion?  Well, it did Gluck no harm and it gave this audience plenty to look at and admire in a 90-minute work without much action; perhaps just a bit more than you enjoy in your average Greek tragedy.   At the end, the opening night audience exploded into a standing ovation frenzy; the two middle-aged women sitting next to us whooped and hollered like twelve-year-olds at a Justin Bieber gig.   Certainly, there was a good deal to admire and praise; but I came away unmoved: no catharsis for this soul.

Lifschitz sets the opera in an asylum.  It’s all white walls and stark bed frames.   Orpheus is under restraint at the work’s start; during the final chorus he daubs a message – ‘The Triumph of Love’ – across the back wall using what I think was meant to represent blood.   But, if you make a madman out of Orpheus, it’s difficult to make sense of the work as a dramatic construct.   Not only that: such a conceit gnaws away at the superb lyrical control of the music, even at its most frenetic on the descent into Hades.

Did it make you reconsider the work as a potential commentary on the human condition, specifically insanity?  No: any such enlightenment was lost in the energetic on-stage flurries.  Was it entertaining?   For sure.  But it’s hard to think of any opera that could stand up to such continuous interpolations from an unrelated form of entertainment.  And, no matter what apologetics you try on, forcing a comparison between physical and vocal routines, this production left you/me unsatisfied, faced with the old quandary of many another contemporary take on a classic:  are you eating fish, fowl, or good red herring?

Orpheus and Eurydice will be performed on Tuesday October 29 at 6:30 pm, Thursday October 31 at 6:30 pm, Saturday November 2 at 7:30 pm, Tuesday November 5 at 6:30 pm, Thursday November 7 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday November 9 at 1:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

A few bruises but solid core

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre

February 3

the-flying-dutchman-melbourne-opera-steven-gallop-daland-lee-abrahmsen-senta

      Steven Gallop (Daland) and Lee Abrahmsen (Senta)

 

Continuing the wealth of Wagner performances that have festooned the citys theatres in recent years, Melbourne Opera follows its Tannhauser/Lohengrin/Tristan successes with this mostly praiseworthy production (director Suzanne Chaundy, sets Andrew Bailey, costumes Verity Hunt-Ballard, lighting Rob Sowinski) of the composer’s trail-blazing initial contribution to German Romanticism.   The principal line-up is an impressive one, particularly soprano Lee Abrahmsen adding another excellent interpretation to her repertoire with the company.

Also functioning efficiently was the MO Orchestra under Anthony Negus, here working under favourable conditions in a real pit.  You could cavil with some horn work – an occasional spliced note, some ragged group entries – but the bulk of the instrumental output came across with suitable gusto after the woodwind had settled into a communally agreed pitch following the matchless overture.   Since the opera was played as intended –  without a break – fatigue became pretty obvious in the final pages.  Yet the general fabric made a favourable impression during the greater part of the score, even if timpanist Arwen Johnston, situated at stalls level, sounded over-willing at  climactic points.

For this production, the MO went all out to assemble a large chorus, necessary if you’re going to have a successful confrontation between the two ships’ crews in the final act.  The numbers were certainly there and made a brave showing on stage, although you could have wished for better balance throughout.   For instance, the Steuermann, lass die Wacht! chorus that opens the last act came over with appreciable swagger and an aggressive heft to the strong beats but the top tenors lacked heft when set against the other three lines and their top B flats and glancing As sounded thin.

Act 2’s Summ’ und brumm’ spinning chorus opening also seemed under-powered at the top even though Wagner is very kind to the singers involved.  Only at the er denkt nach Haus chords did you feel that the parts were properly balanced in dynamic terms.  Later, when the women participated at the conclusion to Senta’s Ya ho-hoe! ballad with their moving Ach! Wo weilt sie commentary/coda, the singers’ delivery showed a fine level of preparation and ensemble.

Negus experienced a few unsettling moments as far as the chorus was concerned, most notably in the first act where the sailors were in danger of over-running the beat – a regular problem even with companies more experienced than this one.   But the searching test, when the maximum numbers are involved during the final act, revealed little of this lack of discipline, the choral complex solid for the most part.  On the other hand, it was hard to fault any member of the principal sextet in this respect and you heard very little of the bar-line ignoring that has bedevilled previous productions of later works like The Ring and Tristan in particular where rhythmic flummery all too often becomes the prevailing texture.

Right from his Die Frist ist um soliloquy,  Darren Jeffrey had the measure of the title character’s role,  revealing a forceful timbre at the Bergehne Hoffnung! outburst and a rich, carrying power in the final peroration.  Further along in the action, the singer almost contrived to make credible the Wie aus die Ferne duet where the doomed sailor thinks he might have found redemption; the effect reached not through a sudden brightness or giving in to the score’s major-key benignity but more by way of a sort of relieved resignation, to such a point that the consoling melodic fluency here and in the end-of-act trio with Daland was articulated with appropriate urgency rather than elation.

Even in the melodramatic final scene, Jeffrey brought into play a vocal determination that gave an unexpected briskness to the character’s final address, Erfahre das Geschick. Even to the untutored eye (or ear), the Dutchman is doomed from the start but the betrayal he feels in these last strophes needs to be unrelieved, so that Senta’s sacrifice stands unalloyed.   In this respect Jeffrey dominated the drama’s resolution, his last self-identification a marvellously exposed bravura passage here handled with excellent forcefulness.

Abrahmsen’s Act 2 also contributed significantly to the production’s commitment to steadily advancing tragedy.  After the unsettling fixation that Senta shows in her opening scene, undistracted by ex-nurse Mary and the spinning girls, the soprano handled her interchange with Erik comfortably enough, sustaining the  girl’s preoccupation and giving her wooer little hope despite the appealing charm of his Mein Herz voll Treue address.  Mind you, there’s not much chance to amplify Senta’s dramatic range in the duet/trio that concludes this part of the opera because the situation offers only a completion of the aspirations with which it began.

As with Jeffrey, Abrahmsen infused her work with a firmness in articulation and dynamic that was constant across the work’s span.   Wagner, despite the reputation he had of drowning out his vocalists, treated them considerately and Senta enjoys as much of this pre-Brunnhilde civility as Elisabeth or Elsa; a brace of high Bs in the Terzett strike you as flashy sparks that shine out strongly in this context but Abrahmsen has a wealth of musicianship, more than enough to weld this opportunity for bravura into a coherent ensemble.

As Daland, the wealth-loving father of Senta, Steven Gallop did his best to differentiate the character’s vocal personality from that of the Dutchman, tending to strain his line in the opening exchanges with the Steersman and sailors but making fair weather of the substantial Wie? Hort ich recht? duet that occupies the second half of Act 1; in this case, an agreable stretch with two basses that sat comfortably side-by-side.  Roxane Hislop was hardly pressed by the small role of Mary: 24 lines only and many of them conversational couplets of no great moment.

Michael Lapina’s Steuermann made one of the opera’s happier characters, most obviously so in the Mit Gewitter und Sturm solo of the first scene which combines an unaccompanied upward scale with a chordal after-strophe: one of the composer’s happier and simpler delineations of personality.  Lapina’s lavishness of delivery, informed by an infectious bonhomie in his stage presence, opened this tale of small happy love and great tragic infatuation with a telling charm.

But the vocal  surprise of the premiere came with the night’s Erik, Rosario La Spina.  I’ve not heard this tenor for some years and was taken aback by his bright sound-colour, both in a ringing Act 2 solo just before he comes to grips with Senta’s preoccupation and delaying tactics, and later the Willst jenes Tag’s last attempt to bring her back to the normal level of inter-personal intercourse that she is inflexibly determined to discard.

Neither of these exposed arias comes close to the inspiration that the score reaches at its more fraught stretches, chiefly because Erik’s vocal line is almost Italianate in its sentiment and shape.   But the music suits this uncomplicated man so aptly that you tend to ignore how out-of-step it is with the surging, harrowing scenes that are the work’s natural setting.   I’ve read somewhere that this is La Spina’s first essay at Wagner: a pity it’s taken so long.  I’ve sat through many a Siegfried and Siegmund who have worked for hours to less effect than this artist’s few minutes of exposure.

On a final carping note, the production offered surtitles above the Regent proscenium.  From my seat, half-way up the stalls, the screened English translation was illegible.  This could have been attributable to advancing years and its concomitant failing eyesight except that recent experiences in other theatres from roughly the same position have been more happy.

There are two further performances of The Flying Dutchman: Tuesday February 5 and Thursday February 7.

 

 

 

 

New take on an old tale

ORPHEUS

Forest Collective

Sacred Heart Oratory, Abbotsford Convent

Thursday January 31

 

orpheus_8770-web

                                 (L to R) Piaera Lauritz, Ashley Dougan, Luke Fryer        (Photo: Kate J. Baker)

 

This is the first time that the Midsumma Festival has offered me a review ticket in its 20 year history.   Admittedly, previous programs have given little room to serious music, the organizers being usually content to present bands and solo artists of limited ability or musicianship.   All the more remarkable, then, that this ambitious project got off the ground under the Festival’s umbrella, and that its character impressed both for its compressed clarity of content and for a happy avoidance of obtuseness.

Evan Lawson has composed a dance opera which pays an elliptically expressed duty to the myths surrounding Orpheus’ marriage to Eurydice and his relationship with fellow Argonaut, Calais who was one of the Boread twins.  To supplement a libretto of gnomic brevity, the work involves three dancers to propose a potent extra dimension to the story-line as sung by Raymond Khong (Orpheus), Kate Bright (Eurydice) and Joseph Ewart (Calais).   These roles’ respective dancers – Ashley Dougan, Piaera Lauritz, Luke Fryer  –  operated in a central area of the Oratory room, the audience positioned on three of its fringes while Lawson’s orchestral decet made a bulwark at the fourth.

The composer has found the constituents of his text in Calzabigi’s libretto for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Striggio’s verses used by Monteverdi in L’Orfeo, and, for a coda,  the second sestet from Shakespeare’s song Orpheus with his lute made trees from that furiously neglected drama, Henry VIII.   Lawson also claims that as a prologue, he  made use of a Greek sea hymn by Phemocles, about whom I know nothing and could find out even less.  At an informational impasse, I thought that there might have been a confusion with Phanocles, who wrote about Orpheus’ paederastic relationship with Calais; or, more improbably, the playwright Philocles might have been involved.  Was it possible that Phemocles had some relation to the Orphic or Homeric Hymns?   We are left gasping for direction right from the start where the marine salutation is meant to occur but nothing rang any bells, even in the printed libretto.

Lawson’s singers seemed to be static but in fact moved around, singing in oratorio style from the front of the instrumental ensemble, or behind the band, eventually in the central arena.   His dancers made exits and entrances with similar flexibility.  As with so many of these multi-platform operations, I found it hard to focus, especially at the work’s opening where the sound-world proved attractive, even if it consisted in the main of sustained notes and chords, both teetering between post-Monteverdian chord progressions and not-too-astringent dissonance.   To be honest, the sounds won out over the dance action much of the time because the abstract nature of Dougan’s choreography seemed to move simply from attitude to attitude.   But then, I don’t know much that would weather informed scrutiny about the language of contemporary dance.

Still, the sonorities that emerged often proved extraordinary, in particular a passage highlighting Erica Tucceri’s bass flute later in the drama which impressed for its full-bodied power in this hall’s resonant acoustic.  Harpist Samantha Ramirez spent a fair amount of time bowing her strings, which is a device that didn’t seem that different in its results from the product of an orthodoxly addressed cello.  More successful were the various briefs allocated to Alexander Clayton’s percussion, his battery employed with determination and sometimes exemplary drama.

Of the singers, Kate Bright gave a splendid reading of the hero’s unfortunate wife, vitally powerful in the Part II duet and then mounting a bravura performance at Eurydice’s death which focused for a remarkably long period on the interval of a 2nd before the character was allowed to enter a more wide-ranging arioso, much of the scene unaccompanied.  Lawson set his bare-bones text with a wide-ranging compass for all three singers, but Bright alone managed her line’s top and bottom reaches with precision and thrilling vigour.

Khong’s tenor came across with similar force and a security that was questionable only at a few points where Lawson had used a note above the artist’s comfort zone, possibly negotiable with a switch to falsetto although that’s a dangerous ask in a vocal part that comes over as otherwise well-crafted and centrally positioned for the interpreter.  A similar moment hit for baritone Ewart, who enjoyed more courteous treatment and who produced a firm level of enunciation and clarity: a promising exhibition from the youngest member of this trio.

While the instrumental component of Orpheus tends to an alternation between portentous and sibilant, the vocal work is quite unpredictable: for whole stretches, as static as Glass; then suggestive of the placid leaps of Berio.  While you wouldn’t find it difficult to follow the emotional decline in Eurydice’s gasping, brittle death shudders or trace the fearful regret of Orpheus in Hell, it seemed to me that the score came into full flowering at ensemble moments, most obviously in the Shakespeare-utilizing epilogue where Lawson found a striking compositional vein that promised a sort of catharsis; in this tragedy, you find a consolation that broadens out into a generous efflorescence before the inevitable descent to darkness.

As I say, the dance impressed me most for its physicality more than for its expressive power.   Dougan was gifted with a remarkable solo at the work’s centre which I assume was intended to underline the struggles of Orpheus with his life after the final loss of his wife and his rejection of all women, climaxing in his confrontation with the Bacchae and their destruction of his body in a Maenad frenzy.  Lauritz’s pre-death solo gave the dancer a fine opportunity to demonstrate her unflappable solidity of gesture and positioning, and I found plenty to admire in the opening terzett where all three dancers interwove with considerable athleticism and not a trace of overt sexuality, a restraint also found in the final appearance where the dancers worked in unison as three discrete entities, all passion spent.

Orpheus is to be welcomed on several fronts.   Yes, it’s a new opera  –  and welcome for that  –  with a solid musicality behind it.   The production uses the talents of a fine group of professionals from within the Forest Collective organization and outside it; pretty much half and half in the instrumental desks.  It has a relevance to Midsumma through its re-examination of the Orpheus-Calais connection, taking matters some steps further by juxtaposing and interweaving it with the poet’s tragic marriage.   As well, Lawson and his forces handle the twin myths with dignity, taking key points and working with them rather than hammering the relationship triangle into flattened obviousness.  Best of all, the enterprise gives you a freshness of vision, even new insights into an old tale which both Monteverdi and Gluck felt obliged to end with a deus ex machina plot manipulation.  In this new telling, the central tragedie a trois remains intact.  You leave feeling that you have been involved in a ritual, human in its essence and recounted with a scouring freshness.

 

 

 

 

A few clever touches, some worthy singing: yet a general inconsistency

 

DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NURNBERG

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

November 17

Hans Sachs

                                                                  Hans Sachs

Wagner’s long comedy opera made a welcome step up in stature from a year’s work in Melbourne by the national company that raised few anticipatory frissons.   Yes, this co-production between Opera Australia, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts came with a controversial reputation but there’s no absolute disadvantage in that; Bayreuth itself opened the directorial floodgates in the post-World War Two years, not least with a startling reworking of The Mastersingers by Wieland Wagner which worked against the historical pageantry that coloured the composer’s original vision.

Kasper Holten’s direction, Mia Stensgaard’s sets and Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes were intended to fuse coherently, offering new situational and temporal situations through which to filter a libretto that is one of the composer’s more satisfying literary products and a score that rarely falters in its warm fluency and burnished brilliance.   But the new look didn’t work as well as it might have and all attempts at following Wagner’s overpowering resolution disappeared with a dumb-show that was probably meant to offer a sharp comment on the opera’s innate sexism but impressed me as dramatically under-cooked and theatrically inept.

In the central role of Hans Sachs, the Nuremberg civic father-figure, Michael Kupfer-Radecky coped laudably, given that he came into the production at a week’s notice.   OA’s own Shane Lowrencev had to withdraw, he himself a replacement for the scheduled American bass-baritone James Johnson.   Third time more-or-less lucky although the German singer got off to a pedestrian start, taking an easy ride through the conclave in Act 1 where he alone takes up the cause of the stroppy young knight.

He showed to better effect in the second act, although Sachs has the great advantage of interacting one-on-one with several of the main players, if in short bursts with some.  Nevertheless, the Wie duftet doch der Flieder musing on his own situation made for a moving and convincing hiatus in the action and Sachs’ dialogue with Beckmesser came across without the usual heavy-handed jocularity, the two cobbling verses – Als Eva aus dem Paradies and O Eva! Hor mein Klageruf – impressing for their irony more than irritating because of the customary superficial bluster.

Luckily, Kupfer-Radecky kept his best for Act 3; not just the Wahn! soliloquy, although I have to say he moved through that with more ease and impulse than many a more famous interpreter.   But the arc from Sachs’ opening distraction to the wise resolution in the character’s words during the moving quintet made a gift of the first scene.   Further, Sachs’ none-too-subtle machinations leading towards the Preislied‘s final statement came across with a happy naturalness, Kupfer-Radecky leading the whole corps to the blazing C Major triumph of the final bars with resonant insistence, even through that unpleasant nationalist stanza beginning Verachtet mir die Meister nicht.

As Walther, Stefan Vinke played a down-at-heel aristocrat with little grace.   The disaster of his initial gambit, So rief der Lenz in den Wald, worked well enough as the singer tore the passion to tatters with a delivery that stormed along its way with a fine lack of concern for subtlety.   That’s quite comprehensible; the young man is all emotion and unalloyed vapouring at this point.   Still, the lack of dynamic interest was worrying and you felt somehow on the side of the dismissive collegium.

Vinke had little to deal with in the central act and coped with its lack of demands manfully, sustaining in his few lines the personality of a young noble sprig who shouldn’t get his own way because of an inbuilt selfishness.    With the help of Sachs, of course, he manages to cobble together a song for the climactic competition and the many verses that Walther gives us betrayed a voice getting more and more tired.   In the first scene of Act 3, Vinke attempted a soft high note with unhappy results; he was much happier belting out the later, more hectic strophes of each third to his popularly-acclaimed Preislied.

Of course, the point where the assembly hears Morgenlich leuchtend in its final form is a superb passage, the crowd’s enthusiasm growing until it erupts in an irrepressible furore.  Vinke’s high As rang out with a firm clangour and he contrived to stay on the right side of rhapsody.    Yet the song lacked an underpinning sympathy; it seemed to be subject to strain, occasionally hurled out with a lack of even delivery across the phrases.   A good effort, I suppose, but with the emphasis on the noun.

As Beckmesser, Warwick Fyfe worked with considerable insight by making this unpleasant character quite human, particularly in Act 1.   Usually, the Marker’s pedantry contrasts poorly with Walther’s gallantry and high-mindedness but you could find excuses for Beckmesser’s spite, in particular when Fyfe made it clear that the man was offended and nonplussed by the neophyte’s complete disregard for the Mastersingers’ Tabulature.  Beckmesser’s attempt to serenade Eva was carried through without resorting to the whining silliness that European houses have tolerated for far too long.

Of course, both here and in the disastrous attempt to sing the text he inveigled from Sachs, Beckmesser is handicapped by Wagner’s pointless melismata and his own uncomprehending mangle of Walther’s poem.   But Fyfe did a commendable job of singing pretty straight, not indulging in much distortion or conscious vocal slapstick, holding his own when confronting Sachs on his ‘dishonesty’ and then trying to ensure that there would be no repercussions or public revelations that would counter his run at the prize.    Almost alone among his colleagues, this Beckmesser brought an animation to every line; you were faced with a personality, if an unattractive one, that expressed the baser emotions without resorting to cheap effects.

Nicholas Jones’ David appealed as attractively buoyant, at his best in that instructional dialogue in Act 1 where the apprentice aims to teach Walther ‘the rules’ of writing a song. This young tenor’s German came across very clearly, a model for some of his colleagues. He stayed just the right side of bearably put upon in the solo and consequent dialogue with Sachs that opens Act 3, later holding his own in the Selig, wie die Sonne quintet.  Mind you, he had to put up with much of his character’s comedy cut or barely credible because of the updating wished upon him by director Holten, but his sharp-as-a-pin characterization lit up some pedestrian pages in the outer acts.

She gets to appear in all the acts and has some contributions to make in each one, but the heroine Eva gets very little solo exposure.    Natalie Aroyan made each line count with an admirable clarity, sticking to the conductor’s beat with more consistency than some of her colleagues.    But Eva’s output is often restricted to quick dialogue as she admits to her love for Walther in Act 1, tries to glean information from Sachs in Act 2, although she enjoys a shining moment when eulogising the old man and trusting that all will turn out for the best.   Not a performance that attracted attention but persuasive for its bursts –  often just a quatrain – of ardour.

Eva’s nurse, Magdalena, has less to do; even so, Dominica Matthews was hard to fault, particularly as her most extended passage of play came during a weighty ensemble.   Like several others in the cast, she laboured under directorial and costuming constraints, not to mention a clumsy entrance and exit in the apprentices’ Johannistag! scene.

Among the other ten Mastersingers, many familiar names showed up – Luke Gabbedy, John Longmuir, Kanen Breen, Robert Macfarlane, Michael Honeyman, Gennadi Dubinsky – but to my ears the performance’s outstanding male voice belonged to Daniel Sumegi, who gave sterling service as Pogner.

Sumegi served notice of his pre-eminence in a powerful and warm reading of Nun hort, und versicht mich recht where the character gives notice of why he is putting his daughter up as prize for the final of Nuremberg’s Got Talent.   From here on, you could take pleasure in every line from Pogner: his introduction of Walther, the later post-attempt vacillation, and the self-doubts and justifications  at the start of Act 2.   Even the singer’s few solo apostrophes in the last scene added to the opera’s humane breadth.

Inkinen brought out the best in an expanded Orchestra Victoria, especially the high strings which generally sound thin but, even faced with Wagner’s hefty brass, soared through the overture with an unexpected clarity and precise articulation that was rarely found wanting in the long hours ahead.    Being seated on the State Theatre’s left side, I enjoyed plenty of exposure to the horns, but flaws from that section proved remarkably few.    Above all, the conductor exercised firm control over his pit, even if some principals found themselves behind the beat on occasions, while the chorus showed a tendency to rush forward at animated moments.

So, a fairly satisfying vocal and instrumental outlining of the work with no signs of fatigue except from Vinke, over-energised in the last act.   But, as soon as the curtain rose, the production’s viewpoint(s) raised many questions.

You weren’t faced with St. Katherine’s Church but the interior of a gentlemen’s club – well, maybe.   No congregation sang the opening chorale but a group dressed in business suits – even the females – who belted the hymn out with little subtlety.   An onstage conductor led them and an unidentified man sitting at a desk took the choir’s plaudits after the piece had finished.  This latter could have been the chorale’s putative composer, but you were not sure.   The choir went off.  Were they club members?  An ensemble that used the place for rehearsals?   No reason presented itself and this was only a few minutes into the opera proper.

Unlike the original staging, Eva is not hanging around the church waiting for Walther to approach; she’s being fitted for her wedding dress in this catch-all venue, while Magdalena supervises – not so much a nurse as a secretary, and not confined to Eva’s concerns, it seems, but the club’s as well.   David is not top dog among the apprentices but a head of staff for the club.   Walther enters, looking like a 1960s Woodstock scruff.   The declarations of love are made while the staff busy themselves primping and prinking the club’s surrounds.  Tables are set up for the Mastersingers’ meal.    The men themselves enter, dressed as masons, complete with gauntlet cuffs, aprons and medallions of office.

So far, you’ve been asked to face nothing too ridiculous.   You can easily take on board the concept of the guild as a secret society, an idea reinforced by the insistence on rules and regulations., and later on, the rejection – with the exception of Sachs the Tolerant – of Walther’s new art.

When Act 2 gets under way properly, it has none of the staging that the original requires: no corner houses of Pogner and Sachs, only symbolic trees/shrubs, no divided door for the cobbler’s workshop, no elder tree, no windows.   We’re a long way from a street scene; indeed, it’s hard to conceive exactly where we’ve been transported.    Jesper Kongshaug’s lighting design starts to move from Act 1’s light-filled space to darkness; so it should, as the opera’s temporal progress requires.   But the background shifts almost imperceptibly as the action heats up.

The act culminates in a riot, during which Beckmesser is attacked by David who thinks that he’s serenading Magdalena; Sachs disrupts the eloping party and sends Eva back to her own house while taking Walther into his own; the chorus whips up a state of ferment as fighting breaks out.   Not for this production.   The whole thing becomes a nightmarish orgy, complete with horse-headed men simulating sex with willing women across front of stage.    When the Nightwatchman comes on, there is a general freeze, which rather undercuts the point – and humour –  of the scene.    But then, Adrian Tamburini in this role has entered into the spirit of things by now being dressed as a barrel-chested satyr.

In the final scene, we’re back to a central staircase and tiered semi-circular rows of steps.  A pair of choruses enters, dressed in modern-day evening wear and takes up position on the risers.   But. when the procession begins, we’re back with orthodoxy.  The apprentices/staff have reverted to 16th century apparel, complete with tabards; even the girls from Furth have taken on the fashion of 1550 Germany.   When the Mastersingers enter, they have collaborated in turning back time, wearing large quadrangular hats and embroidered robes, and carrying the gleaming symbols of their crafts on poles.

So the gentlemen’s club business has disappeared; now we have what amounts to a dress-up party.

Beckmesser sings disastrously, Walther shows how it’s done and eventually accepts his status as one of the Mastersingers’ company.   But in this version, Eva is not happy; she applauds his initial rejection of Pogner’s welcome to the guild, delighted by her man’s contrariness; when Sachs changes the knight’s mind for him and the accoutrements of office land on his head, shoulders and neck, she turns away from him, mounts the stairs and disappears from the scene while Walther basks in having made the grade, becoming one of the fellows.

Whether this is a statement about the objectification of women and/or Eva’s rejection of her father and all he stands for, your guess is as good as mine.   But it fails to ring true, whatever interpretation you try, when faced with the final pages of Act 3’s first scene, from Eva’s O Sachs! Mein Freund! Du Theurer Mann! onwards, in particular Eva’s final couplet in the great quintet.   I might have missed the signs, but I saw nothing on stage which prepared me for this deviation from the expected outcome.

Does it all make you think twice?  Will this version cause a refashioning of your interpretation of a great opera?   Not this time.   You’re faced with a lack of consistency that saps at the director’s premise because the updating and the complete change of ambience are inconsistent or perhaps applied with too much subtlety to travel.   For sure, you will find whole passages in this version where you forget the setting; the less detail visually exposed, the more moving is the drama.   But then, abruptly, you experience a shock of incomprehension as to why the production looks like it does and the cross-bred staging that tries to meld our time with that of Sachs does little more than distract.

 

 

 

 

 

A fair shot at a moving target

DER ROSENKAVALIER

Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

Saturday August 11

                                              Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss

Continuing a newly-established practice of taking on difficult tasks, Melbourne Opera balanced its Wagner aspirations with this flamboyant masterpiece that celebrates an ancien regime unconsciously teetering on  the brink of destruction.  The complete turn-about from Strauss’s days as a significant contemporary voice, Der Rosenkavalier is a repertoire staple, popular well beyond its merits and, amid its inbuilt gems, a hard farce to stage without resorting to crudity or awkwardness.

And it comes with several historical incubi, chief among them the filmed performance of 1961 with Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus with a once-in-a-lifetime cast of Schwarzkopf, Jurinac, Rothenberger, Edelmann and Erich Kunz in Paul Czinner’s faultlessly fitted production.  We’ve seen several live Melbourne performances – only a few – and nothing on the Viennese scale.  But, naturally, you adjust your expectations.

MO’s director for this enterprise, Tama Matheson, has taken it as his mission to bring Ochs back to the centre of the action.  Yes, you can see how that may need doing in times when the Marschallin and Octavian have attracted all the attention as far as advertising is concerned, as well as a concentration by enthusiasts on the Presentation and the final trio chunks.   Matheson is quite right to pull the pretentious oaf back under the limelight: Ochs sets up the whole mess and his presence in each of the three acts is a constant infusion of vitality, if not the humour that creators Hofmannsthal and Strauss wanted to obtain  .  .  .  well, it sort of does but only if you’re prepared to go along a few miles with the dramatic situation.

Daniel Sumegi has little trouble in making Ochs the production’s central focus.  His production is hard to fault for clarity, elasticity and breadth of volume, making him more than a match for David Kram’s over-encouraged pit.  As the character is meant to, Sumegi dominated every ensemble point in which he was involved and he has enough experience to know not to bray, although it was a near thing in the Act 1 duet with the Marschallin’s lawyer over the levee’s ferment.

For the most part, this Ochs stayed the right side of unbridled crudity; any deviations struck me as due to the bass’s direction rather than the singer’s own choice.  But, while you could take pleasure in the self-obsession of Ochs’ Act 1, and the vulgarity of his wooing and wounding in Act 2,  the best came in the later stages of the final act where the hurly-burly was done and the character has to be coerced into a graceless withdrawal.  This showed fine fidelity to the libretto’s intentions, without allowing for any diminution in misplaced self-assurance.

For all that, the use of Ochs as a substitute for the Marschallin’s blackamoor in the last skittering bars impressed as a step too far in promoting the character’s primacy, simply because the music runs counter to director Matheson’s staged action at this point.

Lee Abrahmsen sang a fully assured Marschallin, her opening act a fine balance of indulgence and self-awareness at the Da geht er hin soliloquy, which was all the more welcome for its avoidance of over-intensity.  This soprano, like Sumegi, cut through an ensemble with assurance and – wonder of wonders – kept herself on an even keel in the Hab mir’s gelobt trio rather than dynamically towering over the other singers.

Yet in this last act, where the Marschallin’s entry stills all that chaos, the sense of presence and domination didn’t come across, possibly because Abrahmsen appeared to view the whole scene as an affront to middle-class sensibilities, as though she was looking at people behaving badly and finding it all beneath her.   But I think that Marie Therese is much more warm-hearted and accepting than this, tolerant of others’ foibles because she knows she’s imperfect herself and, if she smiles, it’s in self-recognition as well as amusement.

As Octavian, Danielle Calder worked to achieve a creditable success rate, her anticipated youthful enthusiasm exercised to fine effect in the opening scene, although even a convincing actor finds it hard to avoid suggestions of silliness in the Marschallin’s bedroom activity.  It might have been Kram’s baton in over-active play but it struck me that the Mir ist die Ehre address could have been given with more deliberation; it’s a great moment and should be relished by all concerned.

But Calder did the Mariandel persona quite straight, without cheap laughs as she avoided the Baron’s gropes, and managing the chase-round-the-brothel games with restraint.  Mind you, enough was going on here – onstage and in the Athenaeum’s Juliet balconies – to cover any vocal awkwardness and the exchanges after the Baron’s discomfiture and exit with both of the character’s love interests enjoyed rapid treatment compared to some previous experiences I’ve endured with this uncomfortably self-regarding dialogue.

Anna Voshege sang Sophie, the ingenue who grows up quickly across the opera’s small time-span.  Admittedly, her diction persisted in being unclear  but complaining that you can’t understand the words during an opera sung in English suggests to me a lack of preparation.

You can’t come to occasions like this and expect to be able to decipher everything; you have to do your homework.  People sit through Rigoletto or Götterdämmerung and don’t have an inkling about the meaning of what they’re hearing.  No: if you’re going to the opera, you can’t expect the experience to be as facile as watching Jersey Boys or Kinky Boots.

Voshege milked Act 2 for all it was worth; and so she should because she’s on stage and an active participant for most of its length.  She managed to get through the initial In dieser feierlichen Stunde right up to Denn das ist ja so schon with plenty of vivacity, even in the more sober strophes of her self-revelation.  Later, the duet  beginning Ich kenn Ihn schon recht wohl proved to be one of the more deftly contrived stretches of the entire production, thanks to the conviction and display of personality from each singer.

Among the rest of the cast, Simon Meadows made a determined Faninal, even if he looked improbably young for the role.  Andrea Creighton took to the limelight with gusto during her excited commentary on the approach of the Rose-bearer; just the other side of over-the-top, but why not?   John Pickering and Caroline Vercoe wove themselves into each act with distinction; this Valzacchi and Annina weathered every change of direction and profited from each one with just enough intrusiveness.  Matthew Thomas gave excellent pedantry as the Marschallin’s attorney on loan to the Baron.  Henry Choo made a fair essay at the Italian Singer’s two stanzas but might have been better advised not to attempt a Pavarotti impersonation, simply because that brought to mind the pure glory of the Italian tenor’s delineation of this all-too-brief role.

Lucy Wilkins ensured that the cast were suitably dressed, even if the costuming confused with its alternation between the original time-setting of the 1740s and something resembling the early decades of the last century.   Christina Logan-Bell made sure that the sets allowed space for plenty of mobile population in the outer acts, although the nightmares that beset Ochs near the end were clumsily executed, to the point where you weren’t sure where to look or which group was representing what.

The chief talking point of the production itself was the physical presentation of Ochs as a Trump caricature.  This proved enjoyable up to a point but I think most of us at this matinee performance were more entertained by the finale when Sumegi took off the wig to reveal total baldness – not because of any implied political commentary but because the character abruptly moved to a more satisfying and attractive level, devoid of clumsy satire and more in line with what Hofmannsthal wanted –  a Bavarian bully and bore getting his comeuppance.

Much of the chorus work worked well enough in Act 3 although this was the stretch of music-making that raised questions.  The ferment is pretty fierce as Strauss piles up his action but, even before this, the brass showed signs of fatigue and the pit’s responsiveness before the opera’s sinking-back to placidity in its last pages seemed under-rehearsed, if not downright scrappy.  Still, this is a difficult work to handle, particularly in a theatre of small proportions and a good deal of the first two-thirds of the score came off quite creditably.

A final note on this point.   Perhaps the production might have been better suited to the company’s other venues, like the Palais in St. Kilda or the Regent across the road.

For sure, Melbourne Opera can be reasonably content with its work on Strauss’s sugary confection but the experience was something of an uphill battle where it seemed to me that nobody except Sumegi was completely comfortable in coping with the work’s musical demands.

There are two final performances on Wednesday August 15 and Friday November 17, both nights starting at 7:30 pm.

 

Not again

LA TRAVIATA

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tuesday April 17

                                                                     Corinne Winters

Once again, the national company of Sydney has brought this fidgety version of Verdi’s opera to Melbourne, to serve as a season opener – although you’d have to apply that term loosely as the diet for offer in the State Theatre consists of this lacklustre work,  John Bell’s Nazi update on Tosca, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte fresh from its performances in the Sydney Summer season although without one of the cast drawcards, Elena Maximova’s La Belle Dulcinee giving way to Sian Pendry’s reading of the part.  And that’s it, folks.

Let’s get to the real problem with this Traviata.  It doesn’t lie in Michael Yeargan’s familiar sets: two overstuffed parlours contrasted with bleak prospects in Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3. Nor can you fault Peter J. Hall’s costumes which are consonant with the production’s prevailing ‘look’.  It might not even be attributable to Elijah Moshinsky’s direction which lets the main characters move sensibly around the stage, even if they don’t actually do anything of interest; in fact, the country scene is stripped of visual interest; you’d have to suspect, on purpose.

No, the insurmountable hurdle at the opening night was the music-making, both on stage and in the pit.  Yes, the opera starts with a dangerous Prelude, all slow high strings; conductor Carlo Montanaro could not contrive to give his Orchestra Victoria charges the necessary confidence to carry off this fragile music.  Matters improved when the curtain rose for Act 1 on a set that always looks claustrophobic on this theatre’s large stage space.  The pit wattled along to excellent purpose in the opening dialogue, even if Corinne Winters as Violetta seemed to be distracted by her guests and lagged behind the beat.

This indifference to the established musical pulse is no new thing with opera singers.  Italian opera can fare poorly in this regard, especially Puccini who, as far as some sopranos are concerned,  might as well not have bothered with bar-lines.  And, year after year, what tempo atrocities are committed on Wagner who is much kinder than Verdi to his interpreters, regardless of voice type.

What compounded the problem was Montanaro’s bending over backwards to help Winters along; if she lingered over a phrase – and she did, over several – he followed her meanderings.   You can do that with a lot of free-standing recitative but hardly with the quick-fire repartee that opens Act 1 of this opera.  By the time we arrived at Ah, fors e lui, the pace was dragging significantly, to the point where I thought the aria might have to be re-started, or the conductor would allow it to come to a dead halt.  This devil-may-care attitude to pace doesn’t matter as much later in the opera, but in this section that depicts Violetta as a free spirit and where the character’s ebullience is paramount, there is no defence for dragging out anything, even a self-questioning aria.  Mind you, whether from unwillingness or simple good taste, the singer left out the screeching E flat that every Violetta feels that she has to interpolate before the last note of Sempre libera.

Matters of congruent tempo improved markedly in Act 2 and the solid duet with Germont pere came over as functioning properly.  Even so, Winters failed to convince of the heroine’s despair at sacrificing her happiness for a greater good (if you can call it that).  The notes were there and the emotional gestures were in plain sight, like the pianissimo repeat of Dite alle giovine; yet the necessary communication of a broken spirit failed to come across during the brief cross-purposes duet with Alfredo that is, to my mind, the opera’s most moving passage.

Winters’ death scene worked very well, despite an Addio del passato that might have gained from more variation in attack, although the descending natural A minor scale at ah! tutto fini came over informed by some welcome bitter despair in its articulation.  The soprano has an interesting stage presence and she has familiarity with this role; not surprisingly,  since she has sung it in Basel, San Diego, Seattle, Virginia, Ottawa, London and Hong Kong,  But it was a difficult task to claw back credibility from that unsatisfying first act, even though Verdi gave his sinned-against character a spell-binding farewell with the Cessarono change of pace.

You could find little to complain about with Yosep Kang’s Alfredo.  He carried out his tasks with zeal and an excellent technique, from Libiamo right through to Parigi, o cara with a nicely self-satisfied Di miei bollenti spiriti contrasting with a fetchingly self-indulgent O mio rimorso! as a chaser that brightened the aural landscape before the cant and hypocrisy of this character’s father bears all before him.

If anything, the tenor’s work lacked personality.  Even at Alfredo’s worst moment – when he throws money at Violetta in Flora’s salon – you remained outside the emotional ferment; admiring the temperamental outburst but not convinced that the lad had real cause to whip himself into such a state of frustrated rage.

The opera has only three roles and veteran Jose Carbo took on the important one of Alfredo’s father.  Again, this characterization left me cold, even in those potentially gripping moments where he condoles with Violetta at her tragic loss in giving up Alfredo.  As for Di Provenza, the gentle sway of Verdi’s melody line was not assisted by the bass’s hefty vibrato on the high F at each verse’s end.

Was it a lack of involvement from the singer that militated against any engagement with this personality?  I think so; here, Germont shows little concern for what he is asking of Violetta, contributed to by his lack of physical involvement in the action.  When she asks him Qual figlia m’abbraciate, despite the stage direction, he doesn’t.  Later, Carbo’s Di piu, non lacerarmi at Germont’s moment of self-realisation was delivered without regard for either his tortured son or the dying woman he had come to console.  This wasn’t the depiction of an unbending puritan, forbidding in his self-righteousness; you simply didn’t care about the complexity that Piave preserved from Dumas’ novel.

Dominica Matthews sang a competent Flora; Natalie Aroyan made a self-effacing Annina; John Longmuir enjoyed himself as the young roue Gastone and Tom Hamilton melted into the background as d’Obigny.  Adrian Tamburini brought the customary unpleasant swagger and machismo to Douphol.

Montanaro and his forces sounded best in Flora’s party music, reflecting the action with alacrity.  As usual, the pit output would have gained from more strings, especially violins for the exposed pages that preface the outer acts.  Still, the work rarely sounded commonplace or vulgar, which is always a danger when the chorus takes over.

While Act 1 fared well enough with a satisfyingly full choral texture, the second scene of Act 2 misfired, as it always will, not least because of the cramped conditions that obtain throughout the Noi siamo zingarelle/E Piquillo segment where the choreography looks inefficient and awkward, risible in its efforts to convey Hispanic high spirits.

To be honest, I was relieved when the final curtain came down.  Every once in a while, you could glory in a splendid page or two like the Parigi, o cara duet or Violetta’s magnificent Morro – la mia memoria outburst, but your enjoyment was principally due not to the singers’ work but to Verdi’s touching responsiveness to his characters and the superlative lyricism that he invested in them.   In the end, this was too much of a hard night at the opera.

The production will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday April 21, Monday April 23, Monday April 30, Wednesday May 2, Friday May 4, Tuesday May 8, and Friday May 11. There is one matinee at 1 pm on Saturday April 28.

 

 

 

Just long enough

THE MAGIC PUDDING

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday March 15

The opera was also performed on Friday March 16 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday March 17 at 1 pm and 5 pm.

                                      Jeremy Kleeman, Timothy Reynolds, Brenton Spiteri

Not much to report here.  Norman Lindsay’s story for children about a pudding that keeps on giving is now 100 years old and the state company decided to resuscitate the opera that it commissioned in 2013 to observe this literary centenary.  Quite a few of the central cast members have returned: Timothy Reynolds as Bill Barnacle, Nathan Lay playing Bunyip Bluegum,  Jeremy Kleeman as Albert the Pudding, and Carlos E. Barcenas reviving his athletic Judge.

All of the secondary principals are Victorian Opera Youth Artists for 2018: Georgia Wilkinson (Narrator), Shakira Dugan (Wombat/Rooster), Shakira Tsindos (Possum), Douglas Kelly (Constable/Hedgehog) and Stephen Marsh  (Benjimen Brandysnap). Actually, this last-named plays a significant part in the action during the later ‘slices’ of Lindsay’s story.  But the major cast change is Brenton Spiteri replacing Daniel Todd as Sam Sawnoff, that improbable outback penguin.

As for off-stage changes, Fabian Russell took over direction of the pit, following Daniel Carter’s 2013 stint.   Director Cameron Menzies returned, as did the set and costumes of Chloe Greaves and the lighting design of Peter Darby.

Calvin Bowman’s score still impresses for its open-handed breeziness, the composer’s inbuilt tunefulness a constant feature of the opera’s progress – in solos certainly, but also at moments like the trio that ends Slice One where Bill and Sam invite Bunyip to join their Pudding-Owners’ Guild.  Bowman’s intention was hardly to write flamboyant, technically taxing lines – although Narrator Wilkinson enjoyed some high tessitura calisthenics – but more to reflect the amiable simplicity of Lindsay’s characters, both good and bad.

Anna Goldsworthy made no bones about using as much of the original text as she could fit into the work’s short time-span.  And why not?  The Magic Pudding has an appealing combination of vernacular and tongue-in-cheek pomposity that gives older readers a nostalgic glimpse at former times; it’s as though people of my generation are hearing our grandfathers talking.  This is not just derived from the actual words, of course, but more the quirky turns of phrase and a rhetorical fluency that reminds you of how real conversations used to be conducted.

The action is kept simple enough, the confrontations between rightful Pudding-Owners and their conniving opposition suitably slapstick, and Lindsay’s four slices run smoothly into each other.   In fact, the only point where you could be left puzzled is in the last segment at Tooraloo where the rationale behind the court scene remains fuzzy.  The case for theft is brought by the two thieves, but why do these accusers wind up in the dock?

Still, the work moves smoothly.  Reynolds does a fine line in mildly aggressive salt-of-the-earth honesty;  Spiteri gives his dialogue a forceful energy; as the Pudding, Jeremy Kleeman has a fine time, manipulating and vocalising with well-honed elasticity and a powerful suggestion of put-upon rancour.   While it was hard to penetrate Carlos E. Barcenas’ diction, his Judge ‘s physicality gingered up the courtroom scene just when it was needed; and Marsh’s Benjimen made a welcome common-sense presence when things looked darkest for our put-upon heroes.

Both Dugan and Tsindos as the thieving Wombat and Possum leaped into their roles with plenty of vim, in the process making the occasional sacrifice in clarity of diction; Douglas Kelly’s lawman hit exactly the right tone for Lindsay’s none-too-bright Constable.  But the cast member who dominated your attention was Lay; even if his first entrance left him with little to do to fill in some awkward bars, his vocal quality proved well-judged for the action’s environment, packed with bounce and gifted with a kind of bracing vigour that doesn’t have to try hard to be effective.

As far as I could tell, Russell faced very few coordination problems between singers and pit; not surprising, because the score is as transparent as that for an early Savoy opera and Bowman’s orchestration is calculated for clarity: a string quintet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, one percussionist, and pianist Phillipa Safey the solo revenant below-stage from the first production.

The Youth and Community Chorus that operated on both sides of the Playhouse’s stage knew what they had to do in terms of action – little enough, as it turned out – but I would have expected a bigger sound from what was a large pair of choral bodies.  I understand the production will travel to Wodonga and Bendigo, picking up a local chorus in each town; let’s hope they blast out their lines more confidently than their metropolitan peers.

At the end, my 11-year-old guest rated the experience a 9.9/10, her sole caveat the slight lag before Barcenas went on his manic rave/dance.  It was a bit of a hiatus but, at the end, the opera is cut to the right proportions, a clear success with the younger audience members and a source of pleasure to us seniors who bemused most of our charges by laughing at odd places: a testament to Lindsay’s old-fashioned humour and this opera creators’ talent at preserving it intact.

 

 

 

 

Reductio ad absurdum

ROBERTO DEVEREUX

Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

November 11, 14, 16 and 18

                                                         Helena Dix and Danielle Calder

I suppose that it’s some centuries too late to rail about Donizetti’s asinine Tudor operas which pervert history for the sake of improbable, rudimentary if not execrably written dramatic situations.   And it’s undeniable that, compared to the Maria Stuarda plot-line compiled for the composer by Bardari, the Cammarano book for Roberto Devereux cannot come as a shock to anyone used to bel canto pot-boiler libretti.  But experiencing this conclusion to the Melbourne Opera’s  sequence of Donizetti’s Henry VIII/Elizabeth I operas did not make for a particularly happy night in the Athenaeum.

Soprano Helena Dix returned to the company to sing the role of Elizabeth and her vocal display was one of the opening night’s highlights from her opening Duchessa . . Alle fervide preci up to the ridiculous self-indulgence of the opera’s finale, Quel sangue versato where the queen’s self-indulgence spills over into bathos.  You could relish the precision of Dix’s fioriture alongside the control on display in her ensemble work, all without finding much to fault.

But, from the beginning, the  characterization of Elizabeth offered little beyond amusement and not-to-be-suppressed memories of Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.  This queen, brought down to the groundlings’ level, is a figure of fun, pettish and slightly ridiculous, certainly the biggest entity on this stage and encased in an unflattering farthingale.  The malevolent turn that penetrates her first duet with Devereux, In sembianza di reo, presents as almost childishly spiteful and both Dix and director  Suzanne Chaundy seemed unable to give the character a personality with which you might find some sympathy.

Matters hardly improve in the queen’s confrontation of Devereux with Sara’s scarf, the proof (somehow) of his infidelity to her.  You can see that all the running is left to Elizabeth but her display of the incriminating object is schoolgirl-spiteful at best, as is her intransigence with Nottingham’s requests for mercy. The best recourse here was to ignore the staging and focus on the vocal interplay which, on Dix’s part – once you set aside the overdrawn malice – remained consistently impressive.

Henry Choo gave us a well-rounded Devereux, although it was easier to take to the ardour of his Una volta, crudel interchange and consequent duet with Danielle Calder’s Sara than to his initial appearance in front of Elizabeth where the tenor over-stressed the guilty asides both with the Queen and in the pendant scene with Nottingham.  Still, Choo made a fine feast of his focal scene Ed ancor, la tremenda porta where Devereux resolves to keep his secrets and endure execution; here was an excellent sample of lyrical and persuasive bel canto, determined and not over-supple but clear-speaking and consistent across its demanding range.

Phillip Calcagno, one of the company’s stalwarts, worked hard as Nottingham., the friend turned enemy who serves as the all-too-predictable fulcrum around whom the tragedy turns.   His baritone is accurate enough but it lacks pliancy; a single-minded insistence on correct delivery worked in the baritone’s favour during his reassurance of Devereux but proved wearing in his pleadings with Elizabeth, Non venni mai si mesto, probably because of the sharp contrast brought into play with Dix’s fluid phrasing.  However, the angrier Nottingham became, the more convincing Calcagno’s efforts.

It’s no fault of any singer that he has to indulge in a rapid, hardly credible conversion from dedicated confidante to moustache-twirling vengeful cuckold (or so he believes) in an instant; Cammarano’s dialogue sets up this change and Donizetti was in too much of a hurry for any subtlety.  When the penny starts to drop, Calcagno does his best from Orrenda luce balena onward but the transformation is unavoidably melodramatic. The confrontation with his wife that begins Sara, vederlo io voglio gave us the singer’s finest moments where the emotional intensity of this character’s abrupt change in situation almost brought about a commensurate flexibility in Nottingham’s vocal line.

Calder’s Sara opened the opera, fittingly enough with a plaint:  All’afflitto e dolce il pianto – a marvellous gift from the composer – but the soprano was directed in such a manner that the lines made little impression, coming across as more petulant than tinted with tragedy. Things improved markedly in Calder’s ensemble work, her deliberation a worthy match for Choo in the couple’s renunciation scene and an attention-grabbing counterweight to Calcagno’s vicious recriminations in the husband-and-wife confrontation.

Jason Wasley played Lord Cecil without stress, but then there’s not much for the character to do.  Eddie Muliaumaseali’i enjoyed the part of Raleigh, who has a scene of conspiracy with Elizabeth, Assente egli era, where he produces the scarf he has found on Devereux.  It isn’t much to play with but the bass made each phrase count; his delight in ruining a rival almost made you feel some pleasure in knowing that this knight was to meet his comeuppance under James I some 17 years after the opera’s action.

As for the company’s chorus, the general effusions sounded enthusiastic, but the night began in pretty ordinary fashion with the court ladies’ Gemer!   Pallor funesto coming across the footlights to scrappy effect.   As is customary in these 19th century Italian pre-Verdi works, the male chorus tended to bellow when given the opportunity.

Greg Hocking conducted a pit that every so often found it hard to agree on the beat.  The overture’s tutti exclamation chords sounded effective but the following reading of God save the king suffered from an uneven woodwind trio where the oboe drowned out the melody-bearing flute.  Hocking did little to keep the brass restrained which was a pity as his strings worked hard and efficiently while the horns were not always as reliable.  As Hocking knows better than most, the Athenaeum is a small space where the orchestral output sounds acoustically dry with little-to-no resonance.   Duets and trios worked effectively in stage-pit combination but the hurly-burly full choruses, enthusiastically essayed, sounded too hefty for the air volume available.

In a bid to aid communication, the work was sung in English: a practice that works well when the libretto is worth understanding in detail but not so fortunate on this occasion where the audience found plenty to laugh at in Act 1.  This comprehensibility factor favoured recitatives but arias and more complex structures did not always succeed as well as they might have if all singers had been coached in shaping their words.

But is there a point in laying bare the bones of this opera?  Much of the time, it flies in the face of sense, nowhere more so than in the essential plot element involving a ring that the queen gives to Devereux, to be used by him as a court of last appeal if he gets caught up in trouble.   Even at the final curtain, Elizabeth is brandishing this infantile talisman of intrigue, as though the tragedy can be attributed to its misuse, rather than the fact that Devereux was a compleat traitor with a long history, for such a young man, of disobedience and intemperate behaviour.

On top of this, Cammarano and Donizetti portray the queen herself as a venal, uncontrolled personage; her last words in the opera are an apparently splenetic act of abdication, although in reality she had another two – almost three – years to live and reign after Devereux’s execution.   The legend of the Virgin Queen comes in for a belting as well since her physical infatuation comes pulsing though all too clearly in her musing that begins L’amor suo mi fe’ beata.

So, at the night’s end, after the audience’s full expression of pleasure in Dix and Choo’s realizations of difficult roles, the over-riding impression that I took away was one of vulgarity; not just because the creators had played ducks and drakes with the facts but more so that they had demeaned the story, working to an operatic lowest common denominator.   I’m one of very few patrons of this mind, for sure, but I’m glad the Donizetti/Tudor experience is over.  Here’s hoping the company doesn’t attempt to round out the enterprise with a staging of Il castello di Kenilworth.

 

Early opera, sort of

BITTERSWEET OBSESSIONS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 4-5

                                                                  Karim Sulayman

Paul Dyer and his ABO brought a split personality of a show to Murdoch Hall over the weekend; on one side of interval came stately tragedy, on the other, the closest thing the High Baroque gets to a joke.  You could make a case that the two parts didn’t gel, but you are faced with the same situation on many an orchestral and chamber music program where juxtapositions of unlikely material occur regularly.  But this program succeeded chiefly through the dedication of all involved and the absence of presentation irritations that have marred previous ABO events.

The MRC audience was faced with three scenes, two by Monteverdi and one from Bach. New Zealand soprano Natasha Wilson sang in all three, as did American tenor Karim Sulayman and Danish baritone Jakob Bloch Jespersen.  Local tenor Spencer Darby sang in the opening Lamento della ninfa while actors Melanie Lindenthal and Andrew Sunter took on mute roles in the more substantial works.

Dyer and his instrumentalists – three violins, viola, cello, violone, two recorders, a lirone/viola da gamba. Tommie Andersson’s theorbo/guitar/gallichon set, harp and single percussionist – worked from an open pit on the same level as the front stalls while the usual performers’ working platform became a well-spaced arena for Charlotte Montgomery’s mutable sets: a stylized landscape for the mournful nymph, a large scaffold apparatus for Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and a cafe for Bach’s Coffee Cantata, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht.

A three-section madrigal, the Lamento is hard to present theatrically because nothing happens.  The four  voices outline the situation of a girl left abandoned by her lover; the lady takes centre-spot for the lament with the males offering subterranean commentary, finally come  a few observations about the power of love to round out a 6-minute piece centred on an inexorable ground-bass.  With a large backdrop of a stylized landscape and some cardboard clumps of bushes, the four singers spread themselves around: fine for Wilson’s penetrating, clear voice, not so hot for the males who needed to be positioned in a solid group, if only as a solid source of complementary colour.

For Il combattimento, most of the emphasis fell on Sulayman’s Narrator who surged through Tasso’s lines with requisite fire and dramatic emphasis – in line with the composer’s directions and his music’s illustrative character.  Every so often, the tenor sacrificed precision of pitch for dramatic delivery, which might have made more sense to more people if the surtitles had translated the entire libretto.  But the single-voice experience didn’t pall, thanks to this singer’s vocal vim and textual assurance.  As in the one other staged performance I’ve sen from the national company, the two paladins remained static figures, their combat acted out at ground level by Lindenthal and Sunter in aikido costumes and equipped with staves.

Dyer’s band showed a vital flexibility in this reading, taking every chance to find and deliver the revolutionary score’s flashes of illustrative colour.  Constantine Costi’s direction had Wilson and Jespersen proceed up the scaffolding, become blindfolded as a substitute for the helmets that disguise identities in the original poem, then deliver their few lines from static postures..  In this non-naturalistic mise-en-scene, armour was nowhere to be found on the nominal protagonists  –  just bland everyday clothes, while Sulayman sported a striking red thobe and the aikido fighters wore their usual white, all-enveloping bandage-uniform.

Costi was understandably sparing with his directorial bolts from the blue but noteworthy were the collapse of  the backdrop for the Lamento to reveal the confronting scaffold set, and the dropping of a long red cloth from the top level when Clorinda is mortally wounded by her lover.  Still, like its predecessor on this program, the work is short – about 20 minutes – and, apart from the absurdity of the story and the instrumentation novelties, the presentation’s chief interest lay in Sulayman’s feat of memory and stage dominance.

Framing the two madrigals, Dyer interspersed some fragments by Monteverdi’s contemporaries.  Andersson opened with Kapsberger’s Toccata arpeggiata, curdled by percussion support that featured a wind machine, the action spreading to the lower strings before a wind-driven transition to the Lamento.  Between the Monteverdi pieces came a Falconieri ciacona of refreshing exuberance but sitting completely at odds with the two tragic stories, and Monteverdi’s own overture to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria that occupies eight bars and can be (and was) elongated at will.  To round off the night’s first half, Dyer and his players moved immediately from Clorinda’s dying sentence to a Consonanze stravaganti by Trabaci which also took on more timbres than merely its keyboard orginal.

For the program’s second part, we vaulted forward a century to Bach’s cantata, prefaced by the first movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 with the two recorders and violin solo lines. Nobody wasted any time relishing the counterpoint in this marvellous construct, top billing going to Shaun Lee-Chen’s flight of demi-semiquavers from bar 187 to bar 208; the two recorders were sadly swamped.

There isn’t much to be done with the Coffee Cantata.  It’s just four recitatives with pendant arias, then a final recitative and concluding trio.  The Narrator (Sulayman) introduces the story; father and daughter Sclendrian (Jespersen) and Lieschen (Wilson) share three recitatives, enjoy two arias each; finally, the Narrator folds it all up and all three collaborate for the summation.  As you’d expect, the girl gets to enjoy her obsession – coffee – and the father once again copes with the inevitable.  But the score holds two splendid numbers: the soprano’s lilting last aria, Heute noch; and that last ensemble, Die Katze lasst das Mausen nicht, which is so full of sturdy bonhomie that it makes you forget – almost – the affected and pretentious industry that has grown up around the simple practice of drinking coffee.                        (L to R)     Karima Sulayman, Natasha Wilson, Jakob Bloch Jespersen

Wilson played the spoiled rich girl with convincing flair, her sprightly vocal colour suited to this transparent score.   Jespersen enjoyed his only moments of extended solo work in the night, best exercised in his Madchen, die von Harten sinnen aria where he kept exasperation and self-pity deftly harnessed.  Sulayman occupied himself with the fiddly tasks that typify your born barista – a hard ask, doing nothing for a good stretch of time – but came into his own with a light ringing sound for the concluding trio.

Yes, the company asked you to jump from deep medieval gloom to pre-Enlightenment burlesque across the night but something about Bach’s assurance and innate kindness made the transition come to a softer landing.  Finally, it is hard to speak highly enough of the ABO’s flawless support, although, if pressed, you’d have to single out Melissa Farrow’s delectable flute and its supple ornamentation as a particular delight.