Janacek on a small scale


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday June 22

       Antoinette Halloran (Fox), Celeste Lazarenko (Vixen)

While it was a fair effort on the company’s part  to get this problematic work onto the stage, a few days after the event it strikes me that not much about the production could be called memorable or striking.  The singers and orchestra went through the score with efficiency but, apart from the principals, you got the feeling that not much else was added. On top of this sense of ordinariness, Stuart Maunder’s direction of the secondary and tertiary figures impressed as perfunctory and, as he had little enough resource material to work with, the unsatisfying effect was all the more prominent.

The last two times I’ve been in this theatre have been for VO work: Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty and Ernest Toch’s The Princess and the Pea – both of which slotted into the Playhouse space well enough.  The Janacek opera is another matter altogether.  You can admire the truncation of orchestral forces by Jonathan Dove as a sad/necessary job done competently but nothing makes up for the absence of power in those terse rhapsodic outbursts that constitute the score’s chief glory.   The main trio of singers – Celeste Lazarenko, Antoinette Halloran, Barry Ryan (Forester) – gave respectable accounts of their roles, and their peers on the human side showed equal assurance: Brenton Spiteri’s regretful Schoolmaster, Samuel Dundas bumbling but lethal as the poacher Harasta, Jeremy Kleeman’s Parson sustaining with distinction his maudlin solo Pomni, abys byl.

On a bare stage with abstract representations of trees, the chorus of forest creatures assembled for the capture of the vixen – but in lamentably small numbers, unable to communicate the composer’s sonorous fabric suggesting the teeming life in this environment.   Ryan’s stentorian timbre proved exemplary from this scene until his final meditation – that marvellous and moving stretch beginning Nerikal jsem to?!.  But his orchestral support sounded meagre, as though the pit occupants were operating from some distance away.  At most points, the animals’ interpolations were left unwoven into the orchestral fabric, the singers treating their interjections and comments with plenty of regard for the rhythm and nothing at all for the vocal-orchestral ambience in operation.

Lazarenko made impressive work of her feminist pitch to the hens, keeping you involved even though her line is a sequence of short phrases.  Even better came in the courting scene; not so much a duet as a dialogue and carried out with reassuring fluency alongside’Halloran.   Although the Vixen has room to establish a character, the Fox has to work quickly and one of the more impressive segments of this production came in that Bozinku, ten je hezke! section where both characters meet.  Neither they nor Janacek waste time and the movement from here to the end-of-act wedding should sweep you into the action compulsively.

Disappointingly, these great moments felt under-powered, like the repetitive post-wedding chorus at the conclusion to Act 2 and the final D flat peroration, reminiscent of the composer’s Sinfonietta, that communicates so honestly the work’s underlying pantheism.  You need heft and timbral depth at both points, qualities that Jack Symonds’ 20-strong orchestra was unable to provide.

Yes, I understand that this was a budget effort and a charitable spectator is expected to make certain allowances.   But the actual look of the work smacked of carelessly cut corners and making-do.  You can mentally compensate for deficiencies in scale when dealing with operas that really amount to operettas without dialogue; Cunning Little Vixen is no such creature.  For all the apparent disjunction of its scenes as they oscillate from human to animal, from inn and house to forest glade, from cruelty to love, the opera works on a large canvas; even the Schoolmaster’s mooncalf-like regretful longings for Terynka need to be negotiated with purpose and spirit.

A fair effort from the company, for sure, and a daring one but the actual realization, visual and aural, gave us all too often only a shadow of the original’s magnificent paean of delight in creation.

The opera will be presented again on Tuesday July 27 and Thursday June 29 at 7:30 pm, and on Saturday July 1 at 1 pm.

A shining light in a drab year


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Friday May 19


                                                Michael Honeyman


Szymanowski’s opera presents a few problems to some of us but not for the usual reasons. The work should be easy to imbibe, particularly as it comprises three pretty brief acts which could be run together without any difficulty, except for trying the main character’s stamina.  And this presentation from director Kasper Holten, a co-production with Covent Garden and Dallas, cuts out the libretto’s extraneous exotica to focus on the three main characters with exacting intensity, just as the composer and his co-librettist Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz intended.  But the opera comes with inbuilt baggage that is hard to ignore; well it is for me.  Still, this night’s work came across with such drive and purpose that you easily countenanced the question-marks for the duration.

This version continued the pattern of updates in the national company’s Melbourne season: Carmen in mid-20th century Cuba, Cav/Pag in the same 1980s Calabrian village, King Roger in an abstract environment of the 1920s, this last making the most significant break with the original.   Leaving this chronology element to one side, the finest achievement in the opening night of the Szymanowski opera lay in the musical realization which came close to ideal, conductor Andrea Molino displaying admirable command of a score that juxtaposes garrulity with terseness, euphony and dissonance, seductiveness and brutality.  He was rewarded with an outstanding response from Orchestra Victoria whose playing remained assured from the opening tam-tam strokes to the abrupt final C Major chord.

The action begins with Christian prayers, led by Gennadi Dubinsky as the Archbishop and Dominica Matthews singing his female counterweight, the Deaconess.  As demonstrated by her Mamma Lucia of nine days before, Matthews has a riveting force to her mezzo, made even more confronting in this character who is, from start to finish, out for blood. Dubinsky held his own throughout his 24 lines, the later ones against an increasingly powerful choral backdrop as he stepped up his appeals to Roger for retribution on the free spirit distracting his flock.  Not as forceful as Matthews, Dubinsky impressed as a more querulous figure, albeit one with a rich Orthodox-resonant bass.

As the royal hero, baritone Michael Honeyman gave one of the more memorable characterizations to come from the company’s recent trips south.  Even in Act 1 where Roger has little to say until near the end, the singer exposed clearly the king’s oscillation between firmness and uncertainty, rigid application of the law and fairness informed by agnosticism.  With the opening to Act 2, we are admitted to the man’s mental and physical trepidation in his Niepokoj bladych gwiazd invocation of the stars and his own helplessness. The following exchange with Arthur Espiritu’s Shepherd, the near-stichomythia from Szymanowski’s encounter with Euripides, gave us a vivid chain of outbursts as the ruler’s arguments and effectiveness turned to meaninglessness, Honeyman becoming more and more engrossed in the interplay of libido and authority, his voice reflecting Roger’s struggles with a fine ability at animating the composer’s increasingly taut vocal line.

But Roger really comes under the microscope when he has lost everything in Act 3 and he is faced with the Shepherd/god’s ultimatum.  In a powerful stretch, Honeyman travelled from the rueful Wokol martwota glazow self-appraisal, through the unsettled vision of his wife Roxana, Tyzes to, Roksano!, past the final encounter with the fateful Shepherd/Dionysus, to that final blazoning salutation, Slonce! Slonce!  He contrived to keep these changes consistent in a kind of personality continuum so that the leaps in mood remained credible, the king’s voice a steady force across the act’s changes from depression, through distress and near-hysteria, to an authoritative triumph.

As Roxana, Lorina Gore showed with singular success how to handle a personality who really doesn’t change.  The queen’s initial defence and pleading for the Shepherd were enunciated with fine definition in a vocally crowded passage, but Gore came into her own with the aria that seems to be the only familiar scrap from the score, Usnijcie krwawe sny Krola Rogera, delivered with sinuous placidity and an effortless floating quality, just right for a segment that is predicting Roxana’s rapid slide into the Shepherd’s hedonistic gang. In Act 3,  Gore made a tellingly persuasive case for Roger to yield to the temptations of the flesh with her Jest w gwiazd usmiechu solo, a moment of driving rhapsody that served as an intriguing mirror for Roger’s own last solo.

Espiritu was the only cast change from previous Sydney performances of the opera.  He has a burnished timbre, making an impression for its calm address right from the self-introductory Moj Bog jest piekny jako ja, hitting just the right tone of aplomb and shameless proselytizing.  Even without the traditional setting’s trappings, the singer convinced you of his capacity for transcendence, although prepared, like the Euripides character at the start, to deal fairly with his human prey.  In Szymanowski’s hands, the Shepherd has a kind of tonal certainty to his commands and dictates that found an excellent vehicle in the Act 2 attempted conversion of the King and the seduction of his court and kingdom.

As with Honeyman, so too Espiritu enjoyed a thrilling Act 3.  At this point, the god’s intent is for a complete surrender from the king and his dealings from Rogerze! Rogerze! Czy slszysz glos moj? onward are meant to enfold the king into his followers’ camp.  At this point, the character is a menacing figure who is reaching out without argument but an appeal to abandon self-regard – self-consciousness, really – and embrace the world-as-pleasure principle.  Quite properly, Espiritu left the Shepherd’s blandishments behind and his voice led into the climactic assault on Roger with penetrating authority.

James Egglestone enjoyed his main points of exposure in Act 1, oddly enough.  Possibly it’s an idiosyncrasy of the score but the adviser’s prominence is evident here in dialogue with the king; later, he takes on a very secondary position, both at the start of Act 2 when he attempts to calm Roger, and later at the ruins where he commands his master to act.  This tenor role was the night’s solitary underplayed participant; admittedly, Edrisi has little enough to sing but revival director Matthew Barclay kept him pretty much out of the way, an incidental presence even when his is the only voice speaking commonsense.

As a swathe of publicity shots in the media have shown, the outstanding feature of Steffen Aarfing’s design is a huge head positioned at centre-stage.  This is full-frontal in Act 1, which opens with Roger kneeling before it and the ‘public’ church scene plays in front of and around it.  The head rotates for Act 2 and its back gives us a scaffold-set in its interior, at the bottom of which lie nine near-nude male dancers who carry out the libretto’s choreographic demands.  In Act 3, the head has been reduced to smouldering ashes – all of which is probably a physicalization of Roger’s situation: masterful and confrontational fascism, then uncertainty and mental stratification above a writhing id, eventually the collapse of pretension and a reversion to basic elements.  That’s fine (if that interpretation is correct or justifiable) and the surrounding semi-circle of spectator cut-outs functions well enough as an action delimiter.

Holten’s direction has several striking elements.  In the opening pages, lights play over the dominating head, suggesting the mutability of Roger’s psychological make-up.  The chorus is pretty much just that, their participation in the action limited, especially as the depiction of their surrender to Dionysus in the libretto’s general dances is taken over by the nine professionals.  Szymanowski uses the chorus as backdrop at several points  –  like Roxana’s Act 2 aria, and before the crisis in the last act  –  but their dynamic contribution on this occasion was often muted, even for an off-stage body.   Against this, you have to put the marvellous burst of power that stormed out in the hymn Boze poblogoslaw Panie praodwieczny.  The director also treated with restraint the homosexual subtext that everything associated with the composer appears to summon up these days, King Roger in particular where the Dionysian/Apollonian divide is simplified to a juxtaposition of gay and straight; the use of only male dancers filled that particular bill well enough by allowing for the obvious without smashing us in the face with it.

The composer and his cousin made fairly selective use of The Bacchae as source material.  The Shepherd parallel with Euripides’ herdsman works well enough, although the opera’s superhuman is not as malicious as the play’s character with his appalling boast: I lead this young man to a mighty contest and the conqueror shall be I and Dionysus.  The king is not dismembered in a maenad frenzy, although we get a taste of that madness; rather, he comes to his own victory and repels the invitation to follow the herd; in which sense – bereft of kingdom and standing – he becomes his own man, unlike the grieving and doomed elder generations that survive Pentheus.

In fact, the Euripidean framework and references can take you only so far – which is reassuring, especially for the religiously blameless Sicilian empire-builder that the opera creators settled on as their hero.   Unlike the Theban king, Roger is persuadable in the cause of fairness; he listens to the pleading of Roxana and Edrisi in the first two acts, and he is enough of a poet and insecure like all of us to listen to the Shepherd’s creed. Although his initial reaction is towards the orthodox, the king rescinds his own order for execution, so this latter-day god gives him a second chance and doesn’t send him mad for challenging a divinity.

In fact, the ‘mystery’, as Szymanowski called it, is best explained in Edrisi’s last lines: Przesniony sen! Stargany lancuch zlud!   The dream that threatened Roger – of abnegating the soul and giving in to pleasure alone – is indeed over, and the chain of illusions promulgated by Dionysus has been broken up.  When the malleable hordes have left, including your own beloved, and are following an easy calling that makes no demands on the intellect, you are lucky to be left standing, alone but upright.  It makes for a powerful affirmation of self-hood, regardless of your sexuality, and it caps this extraordinary drama with intelligence and warmth, both qualities that are paramount in this presentation – one of the finest in the company’s chronicles.

The production will be presented again at 7:30 pm on Tuesday May 23 and on Thursday May 25, and at 1 pm on Saturday May 27.   If I had the money, I’d attend all three of them.




Try-hard maths: two into one


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Wednesday May 10

                         Cavalleria Rusticana

At first glance, this looks like a cost-cutting exercise – having these two often-paired contemporaneously-composed operas set in the same locale, so that the subtle distinctions between Mascagni’s representation of Sicily and Leoncavallo’s deep-south Calabrian village are fused.   You can economise on sets, costumes and, in some cases, singers.   But the bare-bones production look of both operas, particularly Cavalleria Rusticana, is deceptive and, thanks to the State Theatre’s revolving-stage mechanism, each opera has a variety in its presentation, even if some of the director’s staged events are cringe-making.

But what and how an opera is acted out has taken on undue prominence these days; what really matters is the music and how the company copes with it.  Luckily, Opera Australia has some fine artists at work here, with not really any unsatisfactory principals, even if their ardour was rarely matched by a full body of choristers.

The Mascagni piece enjoys a welter of fine melodies, beginning with Turiddu’s offstage siciliana that in this instance brought Diego Torre’s hefty tenor into play well before he actually showed up in person.  Dragana Radakovic’s first appearance as Santuzza showed a singer hard at work but getting very little across the pit, up to the fourth scene’s Romance, Voi lo sapete, o mamma, where the soprano moved into high gear with a driving force that continued throughout her confrontations with both Turiddu and Alfio.

Santuzza, in fact, carries the action and is a continuous presence.  Dominica Matthews sang Mamma Lucia, who spends most of her time reacting to others in dumb-play with some inane recitative.   None of this challenged the singer who went through the expected motions required of an overwrought mother of a wastrel son.  The other female principal, Sian Pendry’s Lola, produced a fair off-stage Fior di giaggiolo and played up to Torre fetchingly in the Brindisi scene.  As the most (only?) attractive woman on-stage, she exhibited the requisite relish for attention but, as so often happens with Lola, she is hard-pressed to make any vocal impression, even in her nasty dialogue with Santuzza.

Torre maintained a striking vocal presence through the opera’s second half, matching Radakovic’s vehemence in their confrontation, playing an effective lad-about-the-village in the catchy Viva il vino spumeggiante, playing efficiently for undeserved sympathy in the remarkable Mamma –  quel vino e generoso aria with its move from hectic, subdued excitement to valedictory lyricism: for me, the work’s finest moment.  The only problem with this Turiddu was the one-dimensional attack, which was rarely less than full-throttle; as a result, the young man presented as an intransigent ne’er-do-well, with whose fate it was hard to feel much sympathy.

Having less to work with, Jose Carbo took this night’s honours as Alfio, bringing some much-appreciated vitality to the opera through his Il cavallo scalpita self-introductory bragging – an aria that puts a bass through his paces with several top E flats and a pair of taxing F sharps.  As with Matthews, most of his vocal work is confined to recitative, yet Carbo built a firmly-etched personality in the short scene of Santuzza’s betrayal, finishing with a convincing Infami loro quatrain, then offering a self-composed balance with Turiddu’s  self-recriminations in the duel challenge.

Andrea Licata conducted, giving full weight to the score’s mellifluous arches of melody and bringing out a steady response from Orchestra Victoria.  The ensemble’s place to shine, the well-loved Intermezzo, passed along well enough, although the pit’s tinny organ substitute dimmed the piece’s timbral lustre more than a little.   In the opening pages, the Opera Australia Chorus sounded lively enough, even if the male voices dominated; but the performance pace slipped to dragging for the Ineggiamo procession.

Director Damiano Michieletto updated both operas to the 1980s, which presents no problem as long as you subscribe to the theory that nothing has changed in the social life of Italy’s poorest region over a century.  The Prelude is played out over a tableau, the villagers all gathered around the dead body of Turiddu; the stage unfreezes and the opera’s action begins.  Much of it involves a bakery, staffed by two men, one of whom I think was Samuel Dundas, who turned up in the same clothes as Silvio for the Leoncavallo opera.  The impression is of a clean but run-down community; Dundas’s yellow t-shirt is a colour highlight, Lola goes in for seductress black, Alfio sports a spivvish orange-brown suit, but the main impression is of soul-quelling dowdiness.

Then the producer has introduced a few oddities.  Why the statue of the Virgin in procession comes to life to make imprecatory gestures to Santuzza strikes me as unnecessary theatrical padding.   Updating Alfio to a car-driving purveyor of women’s gear would be fine, except for the self-identifying text he has to sing.  Also, it’s working against the placid rest from action that the Intermezzo gives us to have Yellow-T-Shirt and a passing girl carry on a little gauche flirtation; that kind of interpolation strikes me as indicative of a belief that, if nothing is happening on stage, then the audience is bound to be bored.  Maybe, but I think that people who can’t just listen to a master-stroke for three minutes should stay at home with their play-stations.

During the work’s progress, someone puts up posters advertising the coming appearance of Pagliacci in the village’s theatre; so we know what’s coming, I suppose.   Still, you’d have to be pretty thick not to be aware of what’s on the other side of interval.

In the second opera, Torre plays and sings Canio with impressive dedication.   This character is a tenor’s delight, revealing himself on every page in every line.  The role’s high-point, Vesti la giubba at the end of Act 1, was a minor triumph with the tenor making every point a winner and giving a vital counterbalancing picture to the jealous brute who is the outward manifestation of the troupe’s leader.   But Torre made his mark at the beginning with a gripping Un tal gioco where he prefigures what would happen if he found his wife Nedda had taken a lover: a fine crescendo of barely-suppressed rage and violence, shrugged off at the end of this solo in a most non-persuasive show of benignity.

At the work’s climax – the entertainment that the strolling players are providing for the villagers – Torre displayed a vocal and emotional command right from his appearance as Pagliaccio, Nome di Dio!   As the scene moved forward and the actor’s self-control deserted him, the tenor gave a gripping realization of Canio’s move into homicidal anger, thus bringing the opera full circle: we were warned what would happen, and it did.

Carbo also performed in the second work, this time as Tonio who enjoys the inestimable gift of Leoncavallo’s wide-ranging prologue, Si puo?  This could have been a fine experience but the baritone was hampered by Licata’s leaden-footed tempo.  Better followed in the Nedda-Tonio scene, Carbo making an excellent self-apologia in the So ben che difforme solo, loaded with self-pity but showing his unhappiness and longing with a rich sound-colour and something approaching dignity before he throws it all to the winds and assaults the disdaining object of his love/lust.

Anna Princeva, the production’s Nedda,  opened with a fine study in contrasts, from her fear of Canio in Qual fiamma avea nel guardo! to the extended flight of fancy where she identifies herself with passing birds, Oh! che volo d’augelli.   This soprano possesses a crisp, bright quality, very accurate in delivery and manipulating her line’s phrasing with admirable flexibility.  To her credit (and that of her colleague), the love duet for once didn’t pall, in large part due to the sprightly nature of her vocal attack and the mobility she demonstrated in segments like Non mi tentar! and the ravishing Nulla scorda! sestet.

Dundas, in a windcheater over the previous opera’s t-shirt/jeans outfit, sang an assertive Silvio, the young lover who has no solo but must delineate himself in his love-duet with Nedda.   Where Carbo suffered from the slow pit pace, this baritone had to work with direction that had him jumping around the stage like a pre-match athlete from an American university, his physical restlessness detracting from the longing and desperate pleas that make up the greater part of his work.

John Longmuir sang Beppe, the general hand/actor whose only chance to shine comes in the play-scene where he acts the 11 lines’ worth of Arlecchino and rarely gets noticed because of the crisis that looms throughout this Commedia scene.

For this opera, the chorus showed a good deal more vocal energy; but then, the demands placed on them are greater – from the opening frenzied excitement, through the Vespers chorus, to the play-within-a-play’s disastrous progress.  Licata’s orchestra appeared un-pressurized, but the great surges of vitality in the work’s middle pages came over efficiently.

Michieletto raised these eyebrows again with his Pagliacci.   For the interlude between the acts, he has Santuzza onstage receiving post-Confession absolution from the priest who led the Easter procession.  She meets Mamma Lucia and demonstrates that she is pregnant; the two go off arm-in-arm.  Some might consider this elevating; I think it’s bordering on ridiculous.   Still, it’s part of the intention of having the two operas cross-fertilise each-other . . . perhaps that clause is unfortunate.   Of more interest is the strange scene concurrent with the presentation to the village in which Canio hallucinates that he sees Nedda  being unfaithful to him – a vision that leads him into his murderous dementia.

A slight problem is one that bedevils every Pagliacci.  Canio catches Nedda embracing Silvio, but the lover escapes without Canio being able to recognize him.  It’s generally a clumsy piece of staging – how can the clown not see his wife’s lover? – and this particular effort is reliant on Canio being pretty myopic . . . or possibly he can’t identify yellow.

Also, as usual, the Leoncavallo work engages an audience more immediately than its Mascagni companion; the drama is more taut, the characters’ motivations more clear-cut, the score more energetic.   But the joint productions’ attempts to bleed one piece of verismo into the other are marginally successful, it seems to me.   If the musical content is taken as the dominant guide in approaching each work, then their internal differences argue for treating each work as a discrete construct, rather than supporting an attempt to push them into the same space.

Further performances will take place at 7:30 pm on Saturday May 13, Monday May 15, Wednesday May 17, and at 1 pm on Saturday May 20.

Lost in translation


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

March 25


                                                                  Olivia Cranwell

After a few hours’ post-performance reflection, you’re left with the sense that there’s not much to Ernst Toch and Benno Elkan’s treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable.   It barely lasts for 40 minutes, the characterisations offer no dark shadings or suggestions of internal depth, Toch has composed very few long stretches of work for his vocal septet, and the musical vocabulary itself is a puzzling amalgam of tongues, when it’s not just satirising operatic conventions.

Director Libby Hill set the story in a TV studio, starting out well enough with all the usual feverish off-camera action and the semi-histrionics of technical crew and acting/singing cast.  Candice MacAllister’s set comprises little more than a raised platform for the central action with a square frame surround to mark the screen’s limits; then, matters eventually spill off this acting area and towards the front-of-stage, although the differentiation between the story and its peripheral framework is broken pretty close to the start when studio gofer Olivia Cramwell is prevailed upon to play the Princess and two technicians (cameraman and director), Michael Lampard and Michael Petruccelli, also take on participatory roles as courtiers.

Conductor Fabian Russell controls an active pit with only a few obvious misfires to be heard from his pretty small instrumental force: string quartet with double bass, two flutes and one each of the other woodwind, no trombone but one each of the other brass, percussion and timpani.  The only recording I’ve come across of this work involves a pretty full-sounding orchestra (Berlin Chamber Symphony) but what you lose in depth (in the Playhouse?!), you gain in clarity from the singers.

Here, the production was blessed in a fine cast of extroverts.  Veteran Jerzy Kozlowski gave us a befuddled but booming King; as his consort, Kathryn Radcliffe worked particularly well as the tale’s fly-in-the-ointment figure who casts doubts on the Princess’s aristocratic background; as you’d expect in this era of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, James Egglestone pranced and preened through the Prince’s part, albeit with a fine ringing heldentenor attack; Lampard and Petruccelli backed the rest of the principals with exuberantly forward baritone/tenor duet force in the few stretches where they were required to sing – usually ensembles.

Dimity Shepherd began the piece as a TV Host, explaining the plot and what was happening with all the smiling artificiality of a Playschool adult; then, she entered the action as the courtier with a good idea to test the Princess, and here is where she took centre-stage for a long tract, explaining her scheme with enthusiastic drive and a no-holds-barred dynamic.  Cranwell also presented a forward-stepping heroine, vim-filled and energetic in both movement and vocal flexibility.

You could have no complaint about the company’s singing, then. But what they sang was another matter.  For reasons that escape me, the opera was given in German; hence the necessary plot guidance from Shepherd-as-Host and some sporadic signpost explanations projected on the front walls.  All this would have been fine, except that pretty well every adult there had a child (or children) in tow.  Some adults believe in the child’s innate ability to cope with the unfamiliar; I don’t and this occasion bore out my misgivings.

For the young audience members, the only times the show came to life were when the characters were arranging the multiple mattresses for the Princess’s bed – a whack in the face here, a crotch-splitting intrusion there – and when the Princess herself re-arranged the bed so that she could get a decent night’s sleep, turning the mattresses into a pratfall-generating slippery slide, albeit one made of fabric.  At these points, the laughs came  out spontaneously.

But the little boy behind me typified the prevailing pre-adolescent puzzlement.  ‘What’s she saying?’; ‘Why did he do that?’ ;’Where are they going?’ – a ceaseless interrogative litany which eventually descended into kicking (his own seat, fortunately) and pleas for sustenance.  Of the mother, who betrayed her ignorance every time she opened her mouth (and she adjusted her volume to match her child’s with no attempt to shut the brat up), it boots me not to speak.   Not unexpectedly, my perfectly-behaved grand-daughter found this theatre convention-disruptive counterpoint more intriguing than what was in front of her.  I understand that an English version of Elkan’s libretto exists; why it wasn’t used remains one of the mysteries.

In terms of production values, this piece was rather bare-boned.  The principals had fairy tale-suggestive costuming; the TV crew wore modern dress/studio uniforms.  But the set was as plain as for a Beckett monodrama.  Consequently, the work depended on its singers and, when you can’t understand them, it’s a big ask of pre-ten-year-olds to stay focused.  A lot more slapstick might have helped; the score is perky and jerky enough in its bemusing fusion of Weill, Prokofiev and Stravinsky to support a lot more running around.

The Princess and the Pea was presented three times on the one day only in the Arts Centre and would seem to have been made for touring.   I don’t know what the young of Yackandandah or Yarrawonga would make of this entertainment; for quite a few, it would be a long 40 minutes.



Respectful treatment of an old favourite


Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

March 14, 15 17, 18 and April 22 (Robert Blackwood Hall)



                            David Gould and Claire Lyon

I was aware of Gilbert and Sullivan operas from school days.  Indeed, G&S productions were my secondary school’s solitary cultural product, so I got to know intimately the chorus workings of Patience, Iolanthe, The Mikado and The Gondoliers at a young age.  Later, as a teacher/repetiteur, I  came across the Savoy Operas once more at a school where, again, the solitary musical effort was exerted on an annual production.  So, as well as the ones named above, I became familiar with the full range – several of them three or four times over – with the exception of Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke.

Without denigrating these youthful activities, I have to admit that much of the time involved with productions was spent marshalling Year 12 young women and men to get through their choruses with something resembling four-part harmony intact, as well as watching other elders instruct and negotiate endless hours of choreography practice and handle the easily-bruised egos of minor-age principals in negotiating vocal lines outside their natural abilities.   Still, an inside knowledge of Sullivan’s scores has broken through several social/personal barriers in my time.

What you miss out on when dragging half-willing adolescents into the worlds of Lady Sangazure and Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd is Gilbert’s brilliant satire.  Yes, the easy laughs we have always with us but the critiques that the librettist offered of his own civilization get left by the wayside in the pursuit of colour and movement.  So the continual commentaries on aristocracy, capital, religion, feminism, racism and psychological frailty get overlooked or are given lip service in favour of belting out the rousing choruses, the arias and ensembles that everybody loves.

Fortunately, Melbourne Opera has entered into their opening H.M.S. Pinafore production for 2017 with persuasive gusto and, alongside giving the music its proper due, the company ensures that Gilbert’s biting commentary on ‘station’, jack-in-office stupidity and sacred cows is given prominence at every point.   It’s been a while since I’ve seen a production that keeps these underpinning themes at the forefront; not even the national company’s recording with Anthony Warlow, David Hobson and Tiffany Speight hones in on the script as well as this version from director/choreographer Robert Ray.

I can’t compete with true G&S aficionados in this city like Jim Murphy and the late David Thomas with the scores and libretti (and movements!) at their fingertips, but I can tell the appropriate – not necessarily the D’Oyly Carte – thing from the ersatz, modernised presentations that stretch an opera’s possibilities.  For Melbourne Opera, Ray has kept the faith; even more than this, he has restored Captain Corcoran’s solo (or is it a duet?), Reflect, my child, as well as the original recitative setting of the work’s final dialogue.  He has also constructed stage pictures that are spot-on – sailors in the right gear, the sisters/cousins/aunts straight out of My Fair Lady‘s Ascot scene, plenty of braid on Sir Joseph and credible billowing skirts on Buttercup.

As most musicians know, Sullivan’s scores don’t require a superlative technique but they depend on variety of attack to ameliorate plenty of jog-trot rhythm and – like the stage operations – the pit needs to be synchronous with the singers; no Wagner-type half-beat elisions and delays can succeed in this crisp, open music.   Conductor Greg Hocking controlled a pretty stalwart band, notable for a competent string group whose bowing was generally uniform, and a reliable double sextet of winds. Only a few points showed hesitation, and these were traditional trouble-spots for both chorus and principals.

Another benefit emerged in this chorus, both genders singing with loads of vim and purpose.  I’d forgotten what a joy it is to hear the women’s entry of Gaily tripping into the double chorus before the First Lord’s appearance: a combination of elements that sets you up for similar delights in the later operas.  The MO women proved a fine counterweight to the hefty sailors, who were blessed with some fine tenors.  Ray had positioned them all carefully enough with few signs of cramped movement although the Athenaeum stage is not large.  Still, Gregory Carroll’s bright ship-deck design with a raised quarter-deck platform  tucked into a stage corner gave the performers some latitude.

The company enjoyed the services of some excellent soloists just itching to get into their work.  David Gould sang an unusually powerful Sir Joseph Porter; he observed all that functionary’s effeteness and pattered through a good deal of ‘business’, but his bass didn’t stay on the quarter-strength level of some interpretations I’ve seen, attacking upper-register notes with chorus-reflecting power.  He found a fine balance in David Rogers-Smith’s Captain Corcoran, the bluffest of characters with Gilbert’s wickedly interposed layer of uncertainty and self-abasement in the presence of an upper-class bully.  His low tenor was well-pitched to the theatre’s acoustic and the orchestral challenges; further, he gave a welcome energy to I am the Captain of the Pinafore and subtle strength to the Fair moon, to thee I sing aria that opens the work’s second act – although something of a miscalculation occurred with an oddly soft attack on the final note.

As Josephine, Claire Lyon  contrived to be both agile and soulful, maintaining momentum and clarity of production (apart from an over-exerted top B flat) for Sorry her lot and later that dramatic spoof The hours creep on apace, resisting the temptation to overdraw the aria’s word-pictures.  On top of this, she has that admirable talent of knowing her responsibilities in an ensemble – duet, trio, riding above a chorus – and  exerting control over her dynamic superiority.   An irrelevance, but perhaps the most amusing part of the performance came when a young boy’s voice sang out ‘Hello, Mummy’ between Lyon’s Act 2 scena and the rollicking trio; I assume the lad was intimately connected to the cast.

Ralph Rackstraw, the opera’s working-class hero with an unknown silver spoon waiting for him in the wings, is often played for laughs, the tendency being to assume the manner of Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk.  Paul Biencourt did it straight, albeit with a pronounced lower-deck accent that dropped – as it should – for the singing and his verbose proposal to Josephine.   Despite living up to his name in physique, the tenor generated a ringing and secure colour for his opening madrigal: dreamy if not soppy by nature but treated here with a sensible discipline.  Andrea Creighton played a fine Buttercup, a character who has to hit melodramatic heights at every turn.  As with the rest of this cast, she managed to err on the side of the angels when faced with her character’s plethora of asides and gave excellent value in the Things are seldom what they seem with Rogers-Smith, following the set moves of advance and retreat but projecting the catchphrases with fittingly amusing enigmatic force.

Jodie Debono made a personable Hebe, managing not to turn into an instant termagant when she eventually got Sir Joseph’s hand; Finn Gilheany matched Rogers-Smith in assertive projection and Peter Hanway worked through the light responsibilities of the Carpenter with a matching heartiness.  Rounding out the crew was the Dick Deadeye of Roger Howell, who seems to have been singing for as long as I’ve been alive and has lost nothing along the way in energy, characterization skills and accurate delivery.  He kept up a fine line in angularity and curmudgeonliness but still has a splendidly rich texture, as in his Kind Captain duet with Rogers-Smith.

Ray had also added Rule Britannia to the final scene, an interpolation by Sullivan for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.   It probably made more of an impression at the time but these days, by the time you’ve heard A British tar and various reprises of He is an Englishman!, the nationalistic paint is reeking pretty thickly.

Nevertheless, this reading of Pinafore is thoroughly enjoyable for any spectator, indoctrinated Savoyard or someone fresh to the field.  Sullivan’s music maintains its elevating high spirits across the years (nearly 140) and Gilbert’s acerbic take on Victorian England’s pretensions and foibles cuts even more sharply with the benefit of our hindsight.   No wonder the old crone of Balmoral detested him.




An earthbound magic


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

March 11, 14, 15, 17 at 7:30 pm and March 18 at 1 pm


Sleeping Beauty

                                                                          The King


Much has been made of the costumes and puppets in this new production from our state company; much effort has been liberally expended on this area, each of the central characters having a ‘front’ figure manipulated by puppeteers as well as a singer in modern-day mufti to sing Respighi’s notes.  This conceit is sustained right up to the end when the figures of Beauty and her Prince appear for the final hurdles, each pretty much en clair apart from some masks that disappear post-kiss.

Joe Blanck’s designs for these manipulated figures are a random collection, the best of them that for the King.   Some of the others are depressing to look at, reminiscent of the trolls in Peter Jackson’s first The Hobbit film; among these I’d include the Ambassador and his Trumpeter, and the Old Lady who holds the fatal spindle that brings on the story’s central disaster.   Having noted this unsettling quality to some figures, and the disturbing Japanese ghost shape allotted to the benevolent Blue Fairy, I’ll allow that others have a Saturday-arvo-pantomime appeal, like the sprightly chorus of frogs at the opera’s start, the spry Jester-in-the-form-of-a-cat, and the plot-recapping Woodcutter who takes the shape of a lumbering, stage-dominating tree.

It all makes for a mobile scene sequence;’ for the most part, the story unfolds visually quite well, apart from the lengthy action for birds on flexible poles during the first pages and the following florid duet for Nightingale and Cuckoo, as well as the unavoidable longueur as the castle goes to sleep for four centuries.

Of more importance, the company’s musical work maintains a high level throughout the work, with only a few bumps along the way.   Conductor Phoebe Briggs and director Nancy Black have elected to run the three acts into a single sitting; not that such a move is a disadvantage to anyone as the cast exposure shifts all the time and any orchestra tutti sticks out obviously in this voice-focused composition.

I think that the company has opted for the original 1922 scoring which calls for a celesta and harpsichord.   But Tom Griffiths could also be heard on piano, which instrument comes from the 1934 revision.   Whichever it is, the band – made up largely of guest musicians – played this lyrically attractive neo-Romantic music with lashings of sentiment at the right spots, the body gifted with a clean brass trio and a small group of well-attuned strings.

As for the singers, their position was quite favourable.  Uncluttered by costumes and heavy make-up, leaving all the physical work to the puppeteers, they could concentrate on vocalising and remain assured that most people were not watching them.  The Nightingale/Cuckoo duet that begins the opera in a lush field of impressionism found Zoe Drummond and Shakira Tsindos sharing the labour – and the pages are not easy; although not asking for dynamic projection, they do hold an amount of fioriture that is high and exposed.  Timothy Newton made a clear and definite Ambassador, although he couldn’t avoid being handed a pretty bland characterization to deal with.  Elizabeth Barrow’s Blue Fairy enjoyed a fair amount of exposure – responding to the Ambassador’s request, presiding over the gift-granting to the Princess, then ameliorating the curse.- keeping a calm control over another high line, albeit one that tended to legato delivery.

The first familiar voice I heard was Timothy Reynolds singing the Jester, then later appearing as the cameo American, Mister Dollar, in Act 3.   A secure technique and vocal personality made his appearances welcome, especially as both were amusingly carried off in a production that occasionally tried too hard.   As the maleficent Green Fairy, Juel Riggall did a great line in irrational rage, her part not actually musical but full-bore declamation.   Singing the King, baritone Raphael Wong managed to match his bluff vocal colour with the benign if gruff-looking puppet figure – another escapee (one of the dwarves?) from The Hobbitt.  Sally Wilson sang two roles, the Queen and the Cat, but the first proved vocally uninteresting, notably in the Act 2 crisis, while the feline impersonation sounded over-loud and overdrawn.  Another two-role singer, the experienced mezzo Liane Keegan gave fine service as the Old Lady with the spindle, and had much less to do in the (normally soprano) part of the Duchess whom the Prince discards once he gets a whiff of the sleeping Princess.

Another familiar voice emerged in Act 2 with Jacqueline Porter lighting up the stage with a sparkling salute to spring as the Princess, bounding wilfully into the spinning process, sinking into a coma with suitably failing vocal strength, then rounding out her night in a shapely love duet.  Becoming a regular in the Victorian Opera lists, Carlos E. Barcenas sang a charming, ardent Prince, holding his own against a very active puppeteer (Vincent Crowley?) whose Douglas Fairbanks athleticism was well-matched by the tenor’s vehement but controlled power.  Finally, Stephen Marsh blazed out the Woodcutter’s solo with a beefiness that suited the physical proportions of his arboreal manifestation, a broad passage of play that succeeded mainly through Marsh’s ability to make the already known assume an unexpected interest – although a good deal is owed to Gian Bistolfi’s lines at this point.

At the end, the work was greeted with general acclaim even if it was difficult to categorize what we’d experienced – if you wanted to.  It’s definitely an opera, full to the brim with splendid vocal writing and some superb moments for orchestra, notably at hiatus points in the action and least of all when Respighi satirises the dance music of his own age.   But then, it’s an opera and also a mime-show.  Blanck’s puppets are the stage’s focus and, with that in mind, the production might have gained by having the singers do their work from the pit, as I think was done in the original presentations by the Teatro del Piccoli ; in this space, not much would have been lost.  As things turned out, the schizoid depiction of most characters left you a touch bewildered at points where the verbal action ratcheted up a notch or three.

And what of the vision behind the presentation?  The set remained pretty staid, with some tapered drums and circular platforms providing the framework for activity.   Philip Lethlean’s lighting plan veered to the gloomy until Act 3.  Yet the guiding spirit was certainly to amuse; no secret messages emerged – no ironic hints at subtle meanings or underlying depths to the characters.  What you see here is all there is – a relief when you consider what Helden-direktoren inflict on us under the slimmest of pretexts.   Sung in Italian, with translations projected on side walls, the performance makes clear efforts to cater for all audience members.

Yet the work remains earthbound; the magic isn’t calculated to generate wonder and the stage-pictures show few signs of adventurousness. However, this is an enterprise well worth visiting, if only because you’ll never see this Sleeping Beauty performed live again, I should imagine, and the musical values on show in this presentation are solid.





Oldest profession finds a new expression


Victorian Opera

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday February 4  to Wednesday February 8 at 7:30 pm


         Meow Meow

Following the success of last year’s The Seven Deadly Sins production, Victorian Opera has decided to mount its own brand of cabaret-with-a-message, a showcase for the multiple talents of the company’s director Richard Mills who has provided both words and music. Not that much is given away about the nature of this new creation;  the company makes a virtue of keeping its gestational cards very closely guarded.   In its simplest form, this operatic fantasia charts the history of the prostitute from ancient times onward, doing so by means of a series of vignettes.

Given the subject matter, it’s fair to assume that Mills is citing John Ford’s tragedy in his title.   Understandably, despite the shenanigans and circus-style razzmatazz played out at the start and lasting for a substantial part of the work, the production’s 70 minutes’ length ends in a sombreness that reflects the play’s tenor.   Some days after the premiere, it’s still difficult to come down firmly on a sustainable evaluation of the creator’s intentions.

‘Tis Pity opens with a petit fanfare, as bold and brassy as any extroverted page from Les Six, chanteuse Meow Meow and tenor Kanen Breen setting up a whirlwind of clownish, frantic action before settling into the chain of episodes that constitute the work’s body, each change of era signalled by a brisk mood-changing blurt.   While the opening scenes are clearly signposted on large screens positioned on the Murdoch Hall’s back wall above Orchestra Victoria, the distinction between historical periods appears to break down the closer we get to the our own times.

Meow Meow works very hard to differentiate between the types of sirens from ages past, but the message is clear that ‘fallen’ women were (and are) more sinned against than sinning.   Musically, the fantasia puts few strains on the singer’s compass; rather, her endurance is tested as the action becomes more helter-skelter and, at two climactic points, her amplification system fails to carry over the OV brass at full pelt.  Breen’s tenor enjoys equal projection as he carries out his MC/Chorus role with athletic, angular enthusiasm. Both these principals are assisted by a trio of male dancers – Alexander Bryce, Thomas Johansson, Patrick Weir –  who move the set, act as dressers, do a bit of singing and offer a non-gender specific ambience that fluctuates from old-fashioned camp to menacing military slog.

Mills sets up a sort of thesis pretty quickly, first siting his Ever-Womanly in the Greece of Solon, that Athenian law-giver who, according to certain authorities, stabilised sexual conduct in his time – and for centuries after –  by setting up statutes that governed brothels.   The Roman Empire, I faintly remember, was represented by Ovid, the poet of instruction to both sexes on how to seduce each other.   The Dark Ages (unless I have things out of sync) brought up the shade of Tertullian, a Church Father who chastised all women as representing Eve, the original sinner.   Matters calmed down with the Middle Ages and Villon’s Ballade des dames du temps jadis – the night’s highpoint for me and its lyrical core – then smartened up for a post-Renaissance scrap from Rochester and a light-hearted description of the emergence of syphilis as an international scourge.

From about this point, the vignettes blended into a real fantasia, centuries passing in a blur of words and musical pastiche before climaxing at a point where the three dancers, with heads down, stamped out a rhythm while a moving screen packed with words from European languages referring to sex and its many professional executants scrolled over the hall’s back wall, he whole scene bringing to mind sadomasochism, military campaigns of rape and the dehumanising face of eroticism when it’s reduced to an automatic procedure, a reflex rather than a revel.

The libretto has something for all, its literary borrowings and allusions a consistent pleasure in a time when wit is often employed without wisdom.  The score, in essence, is a series of numbers, many of them imitations rather than parodies of dances from the early 20th century decades.  Mills is quite happy to give his singers a broad, lyrical vocal line or six to relieve the tension of concentrating on the quick-delivery one-liners.   Intentional or not, the enterprise brings to mind the world of the Cabaret film with Breen  a rather unnerving Joel Grey figure who is not simply an introducer and observer but who becomes completely wrapped up in the historical/moral review.   Meow Meow changes costume and emotional address with remarkable skill, embracing the parodic aspect of the earlier vignettes and becoming more agitated in manner and vocal effort as the outline of prostitution’s history nears our times and the commentary rises in grim power.

At the end, ‘Tis Pity leaves you ambivalent.   While the choreography and prop/costume manipulation demonstrate director Cameron Menzies’ deftness of craft, the moments that impress most tellingly are relatively static, where the author (who also conducted) pulls back the dramatic pace and the singers can concentrate on singing their lines without stage-business interference.   Not that the activity is distracting on a large scale, but there come moments when you would prefer less bounding across the stage or up and into the tinsel-protected bowels of the central mobile staircase.

And what is the moral?  After such a wide-ranging commentary, what is the summary lesson?  The courtesan we have always with us, from Lilith and Eve onward up to the mobility of relationships in our times where all our sophistication simply underlines the no-nonsense commercialism of the profession with, as in Solon’s day, the religious establishment’s accusations of sin or wrong-doing not worth considering.   Mills gives a consistently sympathetic portrayal of women, even in his penultimate vision of the New Age Amazon who may dress up as a valkyrie but is still suffering exploitation in a different guise.

You get no definite answers, more an inbuilt suggestion that, in commercial sex particularly, kindness and emotional generosity should not be impossible elements.   A large part of Meow Meow’s sharply insightful skill lies in proposing the observance of humaneness across the sexes without any descent into preaching.

If you have something to say


Chamber Made Opera

Arts House, North Melbourne

November 23-27


                       (Left to right)  Gian Slater, Edward Fairlie, Georgie Darvidis, Josh Kyle

First and foremost, the four singer-actors in this entertainment impress mightily by their devotion to the task at hand.   They sing, speak and move around their acting space with unflappable confidence, facing down the occasional amplification system overload with an aplomb that carries the piece along, almost to the point where you are convinced that there must be a point behind it all, and you’re just too thick to grasp it.

Librettist Tamara Saulwick and composer Kaye Neal have constructed a work that is hard to classify.   The central quartet of personalities – not that closely individuated, as far as I could tell – begin Permission to Speak by sitting on their white cube-seats and letting loose a chain of adolescent ejaculations – er, ah, mmm – which also move into isolated phrases or cliches before the vignettes that provide a plot begin.  Immediately, you are confronted with an implied irony: if you have or want permission to say anything, you need to have some sort of message; at the beginning of this work, there is nothing to say  –  yet – except to defer communication by means of banal temporising techniques.

Later in the work’s progress, spoken words stop and the characters sing detached chords to isolated syllables: a juxtaposition of verbal tics and choral blurtings.  What is intriguing is the way in which the performers seem to pull chords out of the air, bringing to mind the splendid chorus work in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach – one of the few redeeming factors at operation throughout that extended exercise in superficiality.   But the musical content in Neal’s work is generally subordinated to the often cryptic texts.

Which come at you both from the (amplified) executants and speakers that surround the audience and pile on recorded information employing about 27 different voices. Sometimes, the soundtrack is overwhelming –  material overload, a fading in and out of audibility, words and whole sentences sometimes coherent and then breaking into meaninglessness.   At quieter moments, such work is left to the live performers who share in a similar complex of straight dialogue and fragments.  For Georgie Darvidis, Gian Slater, Edward Fairlie and Josh Kyle the actual theatrical action allows for little slackening off, not much time spent out of the various spotlights.

But what actually happens?  The voice-overs and live actors move through a series of tableaux, mainly presented verbally although a sort of mimed death-scene for everybody intrudes near the end.   I picked up a few of the stories – a young man offended that his mother has read his emails which contain the news that he is dating a man; a young girl railing publicly against her bourgeois family life in Glen (or was it Mount?) Waverley; a daughter appalled at her father’s matter-of-fact announcement that he has a tumour; a diatribe against an apparently cold, emotionally unresponsive mother.  Most of this struck me as commonplace domestic drama, brief snatches that could provide plot variants for TV soaps.

But these situations have the benefit of being familiar, representing experiences that many of us have had or that resemble moments in our lives.   And that’s fine: you can’t be forever looking in your entertainment for towering passions like  those of Tosca or (more relevant this week) Brunnhilde.  Saulwick and Neal take the ordinary and the immediately recognizable as their basic matter, facing their observers with – themselves.

On  Wednesday night, it struck me that what these passages of play lacked was a sense that they constituted much more than the situations they presented, that they were capable of extrapolation.    It wasn’t so much that you were waiting for a resolution to each crisis: as far as I could work out, there was no intention of working any of the episodes through to a happy or sad ending   –  you just heard the voice narrating what had happened, sometimes with hesitations and abrupt bursts of development.  But the episodes had no context outside of their bare narration.

No, you can’t expect linear narrative in an enterprise like this one where interpretation is emphatically a matter for the individual and in any case is put to the challenge by the constructors’ modes of communication.   And you can’t fault the device of recording social malaise as a series of isolated points emerging from various lives.   But, at the end, you are left with small windows, only a few illuminated, rather than a canvas to re-examine and relish.

What Permission to Speak bases itself in, what it is about, is an entity that is all too familiar to nearly all of us: the family – more properly, the unhappy family because there’s precious little light in this exercise; even those few moments that moved into humour convinced only a few of us.

For all that, the opening night audience gave the cast and creators rousing applause at the work’s end, and you could understand why.  Despite its disconcerting layers of compacted information, Permission to Speak has an unarguably serious intent, its situations familiar to the point of discomfort, the musical content eminently assimilable.  Most importantly, it is distinguished for its hard-working cast, whose devotion gave focus and drive to this hour-long enterprise.


Figaro the big winner


Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday July 21


Brett Carter

       Brett Carter


There’s a lot to like about the new production (shared with Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera) of Rossini’s masterwork, presented by Opera Queensland.   The single set works pretty well; Matthew Marshall’s lighting design has some surprises but little obtrusiveness; Lindy Hume’s direction has some excellent touches of laugh-out-loud comedy as well as a few spots that are groan-worthy.  Roland Peelman has made a seemingly effortless glide from the rarefied Song Company recital scene to the pit of Brisbane’s Playhouse, and the Opera Queensland Chorus made a good showing in this version which gives extranumeraries a lot of scope; probably more than Rossini would have imagined, but who’s looking?

More importantly, the set of principals I saw were well-prepared, as close to note-perfect as the composer allows, given the frantic pace of a few ensembles.  This performance  – and, I assume, the others in which he was cast – were dominated by Brett Carter who has enjoyed plenty of experience in the title role.   He has a solid and flexible baritone, evident from his self-introductory aria which maintained its polysyllabic fluency without garbling or leaving out notes.   A lithe figure, costumed to accentuate his height, Carter shows an appealing character, responsive to everybody else and slotting into place with admirable skill.   Possibly his finest showing is Act 1 where the sequence from Largo al factotum, through the sparkling All’idea di quel metallo/Ah, che d’amore duet with Almaviva, across the interchanges with Rosina, up to the brilliant finale Carter sustained his line with equanimity and proficiency.

He had companions in this professionalism.   David Hibbard’s Don Basilio surprised by the vibrancy and power of his vocal equipment, the La calunnia solo given with just enough suggestiveness, not falling into the trap of over-emphasizing its inbuilt crescendo.  In fact, each time Hibbard opened his mouth, that orotund bass impressed for its masculine darkness, as though the singer had just come from an audition for Boris.   As with Carter, the singer worked efficiently in ensembles, notably the Mi par d’esser gallop.

Andrew Collis confused us very nicely.  On his first entrance, announcing to Basilio that he intended to marry his ward that day, his Bartolo looked and sounded the stock characterisation: elderly to the point of doddering, vocally reserved, an impossible match for the young person who has just introduced herself at length.  Two scenes later and Bartolo appeared with a full head of post-Elvis hair, a much more aggressive vocal colour, altogether a more formidable manipulator (he thinks) of the household and all who live in it.   As with his fellow baritone/bass principals, Collis made a coherent personality, riding over others when required, although his final capitulation to events could have been negotiated with more amplitude; as it was, Bartolo’s two-line surrender was a side-of-stage business, unremarkable in this staging even though it triggers the exhilarating last number.

Emily Burke made a colourful Berta; at first, a potentially malevolent guardian for Rosina, then more inclined to mischief.   Her account of this character’s one chance to shine, Il vechietto cerca moglie, successfully communicated exasperation with the whole mess going on in the Bartolo establishment, possibly a tad heavy in its enunciation of a pretty simple jogging tune.   Brian Lucas as the almost-silent Ambrogio presented a character something like an albino Lurch on secondment from the Addams Family, decrepit but entertaining for his clumsiness – right up to the point where he and Berta clearly have off-stage sex, after which their appearances were played for lustful laughs and, of course, they attracted your eyes at every entrance after the mid-Act II storm, right up to the final curtain where they were placed centre-stage: a down-to-earth working-class counterbalance to Almaviva and Rosina’s semi-aristocratic infatuation.   Shaun Brown as Fiorillo opened the opera efficiently, preparing the stage for his master’s unproductive serenade and did so with ample fussiness and that anticipated hopeless ineptitude in keeping his hired musicians under control.

Virgilio Marino sang Almaviva, the disguised count in love with Bartolo’s ward who eventually gets the girl.   His opening appearance was not reassuring; the treatment of Ecco ridente in cielo sounded heavy-handed, the line delivered with force rather than lilting, as though Marino wasn’t sure that he’d be heard over Rossini’s placid string support.   Not every tenor is a Tagliavini but this opera is not coloured for drama and the Count has to show suppleness and amorousness.   Much better came later on when Marino shared vocal exposure, and you could not find much to complain of in his drunken soldier impersonation.   But you were left thinking that a lot less force and grinding effort would have given the work better service.

Much the same lack of lucidity informed the opening Una voce poco fa of Katie Stenzel whose ornamentation came over as studied rather than frolicsome.  I’m unsure as to who started this fashion for large infusions of fioriture in the aria – it might have been an expectation from Righetti-Giorgi right up to Sutherland – but unless the embellishments can be tossed off without stress, then the piece’s progress turns into a series of tension-inducing hurdles.   And again, as soon as Stenzel moved into recitative, Rosina became the attractively determined and quick-thinking personality that should shine out from every bar she sings.  Further on, Stenzel showed a clean pair of vocal heels in the decorated opening strophes to Freddo e immobile, although admittedly the line here lies fairly low.

Some moments during the production seemed odd, if not inappropriate.  Having the chorus move into slow-motion/freeze positions during the Act I finale was preferable to having them all standing around simply singing, but the effect looked laboured, not at all suggestive of the green-lit phantasmagoria of confusion that was intended.   And the idea of turning the music lesson into sexual mimicry, with Rosina gasping through her aria and Almaviva employing his harpsichord as a penile substitute was effective in amusing the audience  –  but is it in the music?  And, more importantly, does it gel with the rest of the work’s action?    I thought it didn’t, but then I’m a prude from down south.

Peelman’s conducting of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – or some of it – was adroit, inclined to hurry the work along, which I like.  The overture had some dodgy brass moments but the string body generated a full-bodied output in this medium-sized theatre.  Still, the outstanding instrumental work of the evening came from guitarist Andrew Veivers who spent a lot of time onstage providing the accompaniment for the recitatives – from memory.  That’s the kind of touch that makes a performance spring to life.

In all, a brisk and attractive Barber, then, noteworthy for its eponymous hero and the senior characters of the tale.   For all my reservations about the young lovers’ vocal straining, much of the performance proved highly enjoyable, often clever in its disposition of personnel, and eventually satisfying even the most carping observer at that brilliantly uplifting last polonaise, Di si felice innesto, choreographed with modest restraint by the Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela.





Car stands out in problematic Verdi


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Monday May 16

Nicole Car (Luisa)
Nicole Car (Luisa)

It’s not really a hard sell, Luisa Miller; with a sharply-defined set of principals, some stirring, sometimes thrilling pages and a simple plot (albeit one with a few odd twists), the work could be an attractive proposition, especially welcome to finish the national company’s Melbourne autumn mini-season which otherwise walked through two repertoire staples.   For most of us simply a text-book name, one of the 15 or 16 early works by Verdi that largely remain unknown (with the exceptions of Nabucco and Macbeth), this opera represents a turning-point, the commentators say, where the composer’s fully-formed voice breaks into maturity and a buoyant originality that marks everything that follows.

This is a co-production with the Opera de Lausanne, in which house it was first staged over two years ago, and follows on from its appearance during the Sydney spring season in February this year.   From the northern capital’s staging, only the female singers have been transplanted to Melbourne  –  Nicole Car a sterling heroine, Eva Kong as the lightly-sketched confidante/villager Laura, and Sian Pendry taking the role of the other woman, Duchess Federica.    Tenor Riccardo Massi, who has sung in Sydney at least twice before, makes his Melbourne debut (I believe) as Luisa’s high-born lover, Rodolfo.  The remaining male soloists are all familiar home-grown faces: Michael Honeyman worked through the part of Luisa’s father; Steven Gallop added to his catalogue of villains with Wurm complementing his Nourabad from the company’s The Pearl Fishers; Operatunity Oz winner David Parkin (was it really a decade ago?!) gave his best to the unsympathetic role of Count Walter.

So, a reliable cast at work.  Why, then, was the effect so tedious?   Verdi took a gamble giving so much work to a baritone and two basses, especially in the work’s conniving centre.  But he gave them all some fine solos and concerted numbers.   Parkin came to life when Count Walter’s secret (he killed his cousin to get the title) becomes an issue but his self-justifications for stuffing up his son’s life failed to convince and, if you don’t believe that the Count is sincere  –  in this, at least  –  the whole tragedy crumbles.  Honeyman found a specific mode of delivery at Sacra la scelta e d’un consorte and stayed there, the shape of his line consistent but unchanging, so that his injunctions to Luisa and his wounded pride objurgations at the end of Act 1 sounded identical.  Gallop brought a menace to his characterization, his production packed with theatrical points that suggest the moustache-twirling villain, at his most impressive in the Act 2 duet with his master, L’alto retaggio non ho bramato, where both acknowledge their criminal past.

Pendry gave a cogent, dramatic account of the duchess, showing a fine balance between optimism and doubt in the opera’s central scene where Luisa is forced to lie that she feels no love for Rodolfo.   Yet you might reasonably have expected a more ample sound from the singer, particularly when her hopes increase that her wedding will take place.  Possibly it was director Matthew Barclay’s vision that Federica has something of the tightly-laced and snippy about her; I can’t find that in the music or in the actual dialogue that she conducts with Rodolfo on her first appearance.

Car sang with excellent point and clarity, giving an appropriate excitement to her opening L’o vidi e ‘l primo palpito, then making her over-wrought Tu puniscimi, O Signore the closest thing this production got to a show-stopper (it didn’t, but that’s more a comment on us than on Car and her fine clarinet support), and easing the weight of a lengthy double-death scene through an unerring command of her upper range and a clear awareness of her dramatic situation in duet with Massi for Ah piangi; il tuo dolore and in the concluding trio.   Luisa is cursed from the start, pulled from pillar to post by practically everybody with whom she interacts, a pitiable if conscious victim; Car’s gift was to draw a credible personality, one who gives in to Wurm, to the Count, to her father, to Rodolfo, but still has enough spirit to wave a rebellious flag  –  one that fails but you believe that her attempts are real, not just token efforts.

Massi’s Rodolfo proved to be the production’s most unsettling element – apart from the staging which stretched tolerance to an unnecessary degree.   His power stayed vigorous from the T’amo d’amor ch’esprimere duet where the lovers are at their short-lived happiest, through the argument with his father and consequent entreaties to Federica, continuing through the popular regretful aria Quando le sere al placido that experienced a rousing rendition, and into the final emotional chain that brings Rodolfo from disdain and anger to a revived, if fainting ardour at the work’s end.   Through this sequence, Massi sang with confidence and a resonant clangour, his tenor at full-stretch more often than not and his line full of points where he hoisted himself onto the note rather than attacking it cleanly; a powerful personification, yet in some ways not appropriate for this particular drama.

Conductor Andrea Licata gave Orchestra Victoria every encouragement, rousing a splendid ferment for moments like the conclusion to Act 1 where the drama’s personnel come into open conflict.   In later principal ensembles, the brass sounded over-energetic, although that’s an easy thing to accomplish in this space.   But the stand-out pit element for the duration of this opera’s run is the first clarinet.  Without a program, I can’t say for sure who the player is; the orchestra’s website lists Paul Champion as first desk, Andrew Mitchell as principal bass clarinet.   In any case, Verdi gave the San Carlo player plenty of exposure and his OV successor produced a sensible, present but not obtrusive account of the line.

As able as ever in this season, the Opera Australia Chorus gave good service in their few appearances, including a soft, somehow menacing reading of the Ti desta, Luisa opening serenade.  Not that the chorus is stretched at any point; Verdi kept his fireworks for the ill-fated lovers.   But the choral mix proved amiable and appropriately stentorian in support at climactic points.

The original director, Giancarlo del Monaco, moved the opera’s temporal situation from the early 17th century to relatively modern times, possibly about 1930.  The locale could still be the Tyrol; if so, it’s populated by villagers in perpetual evening dress, all set for a sombre gala.   Luisa wears white throughout;  the male principals affect tails, except for Miller who presents as a refugee from a Downton Abbey shooting party.   As the drama moves forward, the chorus remains outside the main acting space, processing slowly around it during the overture while carrying candles in what appeared to be plastic tubes. Preparing for the corpse-rich final curtain?   It’s hard to say.   Whatever the underpinning rationale, this group stays away from any involvement of a physical nature.

William Orlandi’s set consists of two sculpture groups, one of a bourgeois domestic scene of nuclear family togetherness, the other of a gentleman bent over inspecting what could be a fountain or a civic monument.   Both are white, highly polished and suggestive of nothing so much as Lladro ceramics.   During the opera’s opening sections, these gradually roll upwards until they hang suspended over the stage – which could suggest an inversion of the natural order, if only we were sure what that was.   On the bare stage, Orlandi then employs chairs which the principals sit on (but not for long), or kick aside, or throw around in fits of rage or pique.   At the end, of course, the suspended statuary comes back down to stage level, right-side up.   It all makes for clear lines, a welter of black and white contrasts, minimal visual stimulation which focuses your attention on the music.

But, rather than offering a new locus from which to view the drama, the setting saps at its vitality in this specific staging.   Any concentration on Verdi’s score is laudable, certainly, but in bringing about this focus, the director and his team raise the bar for everyone – and only Car is equal to the challenge.   Too often, you have the impression that the male singers have little ability to shape their lines, that the differences between scenes, between individual lines, have been left unexplored, that getting the notes on pitch and on time is sufficient.  This might explain the interpretative pall that falls over the production early on and which rarely lifts.

With regard to a final puzzle that caused mild perturbation during the drive home, I’m assuming that the melodramatic climax  – where Rodolfo, with his last gasp, shoots Wurm –  misfired because the tenor’s gun, so active in the ludicrously handled duel scene, failed to work, leaving Gallop to strike a pose reminiscent of the central character in Goya’s The Third of May.    The effect of this tableau was to make a mystery of the opera’s final lines, where Rodolfo in extremis says to Wurm, A te sia pena, empio, la morte – and on this occasion did nothing.

The production has three further performances, ending on Friday May 27.