Category: Opera Openings

Kosky chaos

It seems like the manic Barrie Kosky is still wreaking theatrical havoc with publicity-seeking creations that add confusion where clarity is required. His latest bit of mayhem is a production of Rameau’s Castor and Pollux at the London Coliseum.
As one cast member explained: “There’s some very strange stuff involving men’s pants. Lots of blood and glitter, too, and a fantastic scene in hell with a lot of naked bodies writhing around.” Yeah, very Kosky. Same old, same old …
Can’t wait to read the reviews.

Aussies shine in the sludge

A couple of Aussie opera stars managed to salvage a wreck of a show presented by the much-praised Holland Park company this week.
Cheryl Barker and Julian Gavin took the lead roles in the rarely staged Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai and received praise from Daily Telegraph opera critic Rupert Christiansen for being “terrifically committed and full blooded” in a work he described as “akin to wading through sludge”.
The 1914 opera has not been staged in Britain in living memory. Which is little surprise as Christiansen calls it nothing more than “wretched drivel” and hopes he’ll never hear a note of it again.
But at least Barker and Gavin survived this train wreck with honour. Seemingly one to avoid if it ever appears on the OA programme list.

Sleep Walking

Went to the opera tonight (La Sonnambula) and nothing happened. Action – nil; plot – zero minus. We had the usual Opera Australia problem of insisting on squeezing its massive chorus into the smallest spaces. A couple of leads had obviously undergone an acting bypass and the backdrop looked like a Bunnings version of a discount Sound of Music set, although the tilted revolve did have its moments of usefulness.
But all that can be forgiven. It was a magic night of seamless immaculate music, flowing forward under the baton of bel canto maestro Richard Bonynge. The voice of Emma Matthews will remain long in the memory as she went from strength to strength and finished the night off, literally, on a high note – and another high note, and another and …..
Little wonder that we saw that rare Melbourne phenomenom of a standing ovation for an Opera Australia production.
Plots and action rarely matter in opera, but it does usually help to have the semblance of a story to fill in the gaps between the arias. With La Sonnambula, they count for nothing; this is a simply a musical feast, flowing forward almost without a break from one magic moment to another.
Joshua Bloom (who would be out acted by the wooden horse of Troy) was in superb voice, as were Elizabeth Campbell, Taryn Fiebig and Jorge Lopez-Yanez. And the ever reliable Kanen Breen contributed another of his comic vignettes.
But it was Emma Matthews’ night, yet again. She is fast becoming the brightest star on the local opera scene for many a long year and long may she remain on our national company’s list.
Don’t miss it.

Not so blissful

The empty seats after interval and the lukewarm response at the end said it all: the opening night of Bliss was an underwhelming success. Australia’s newest opera, with music by local boy Brett Dean, didn’t exactly slay them in the aisles. Based on the novel by another Oz wunderkind, Peter Carey, the opera is a marvel of staging, a showpiece for the orchestra and a collection of bravura performances by individuals and chorus alike. But the totality fails to enthuse or enthrall. Two and a half hours of atonal music played at full pitch and volume eventually grates rather than grabs. The singing likewise seems to be forever at screaming pitch, with little light and shade; even in the rare tender moments.
The biggest failing, however, is that it is hard to find much empathy with, or sympathy for, the main protagonists. Even Harry Joy, who seeks redemption after a near death experience, fails to win our hearts. He’s just another opportunist ad man who seeks an easy way out by falling in love with a hooker. And his wife, son, daughter and business associates are simply a bunch of unlikeable sleazebags. The family name is the only joyful thing. Peter Coleman-Wright is superb in the lead role and there are stand-out performances by Merlyn Quaife, Barry Ryan, Kanen Breen and Lorina Gore.
The set deserves to take a bow: the three sides of the stage are an array of hundreds of light globes continually changing colour, pattern and wording to immense effect.
An interesting night and all praise to all those involved in bringing this huge creative undertaking to fruition. Go, see and be proud of the talent it showcases. But don’t expect to remember a single note.

Tosca triumphant

Wow! An opera with zing, excitement, pizzazz and all those other qualities that have so often been missing from Opera Australia’s begrudging offerings to Melbourne audiences. Suffice to say the Tosca that opened in the State Theatre last night under the Opera Australia banner is an Opera North production from the UK.
Like other productions from this company, Puccini’s masterpiece has been taken out of the time and place with which most of us are familiar.
Gone are all the ornate and plush settings, vaulted rooms, massive drapes and castle battlements. The entire piece takes place in a grotty cellar within the church where Cavaradossi and Tosca hold their fateful assignations. Posters for the shameful Berlosconi’s political party line the walls.The evil Scarpia (and there is none more wicked than the version provided here by John Wegner) is a seedy cop with two even seeder, and equally sinister, sidekicks looking like latter-day Colombos. The sacristan posts up the lottery numbers for the congregation to check their tickets. A gaoler comes eqipped with electrical leads for applying torture.
It is billed as a cross between Beckett and Tarantino, with maybe a touch of Scorsese and it is a modernisation that never disappoints. The singing is excellent. Who could not be thrilled by Nicole Youl‘s strong and vibrant voice. or by the lyrical and equally powerful arias of Rosario La Spina – a singer still youthful with his best years still to come?
It’s a real thriller on all counts – a great opening to a promising season.

Fun fripperies

March 2010: The Victorian Opera continues to make a name for itself by offering works from left of field. Each season its program contains oddities and the lesser known. The latest diversion is a double bill lasting little more than a couple hours and providing excellent proof that opera need be neither long nor boring. The Bear and Angelique are lively, entertaining, humorous and engaging. The young cast not only sing well but act their roles with energy and enthusiasm. This is opera as fun: two fripperies that delight and entertain with outrageous costuming and minimalist sets. If only our national company could come up with such a diverting evening of opera.

Half a night’s music

Hopefully half a review is better than none. Truth to admit, I left at interval. By then, the current performance of Sondheim’s magical A Little Night Music at the State Theatre had become so soporific that I decamped to the launderette to watch the washing go round and wake myself up.

It’s all very dreamy and lovely and lyrically clever but somehow doesn’t excite the way previous productions have done. A pity really, as Opera Australia’s season had so far been a vast improvement on what the hugely deprived Melbourne audiences had been forced to endure in other years.

In the lead role of Desiree Arnfeldt the heavily promoted star attraction Sigrid Thorton did what Sigrid Thornton usually does – gave a faultless performance as Sigrid Thornton.

The mostly young and emerging singers showed many signs of future talent but were acted off the stage by veteran Nancye Hayes in the role of ageing grande dame Madame Arnfeldt – a performance reminscent of Hermoine Gingold’s in Gigi. In fact, the entire show kept evoking memories of Gigi and making one wish A Little Night Music had even half that memorable show’s spark and vivacity. Plus a similar succession of singable songs. But it was not to be and we wafted out into St Kilda Road for a little night air.

Magically macabre Mrs Macbeth

Just when we thought the season couldn’t get any better, along comes Opera Australia’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – a first for Melbourne and a true humdinger of an opera. It’s gutsy, in your face and relentlessly dramatic and moving. The music of Shostakovich, who attracted the ire and banishment of Stalin for this creation, gets to the very core of the action – and the guts of the audience. This is music and drama that moves, emotes and makes all those other dreary nights in the State Theatre at last worthwhile.

The sheer utter despair of life in collective community Russia is brilliantly portrayed and the music underlines every emotion of the relentless tale of passion, murder, duplicity and totalitarian control. Susan Bullock cuts a pitiful figure in the lead role and her real life partner, Richard Berkeley-Steele, makes the most of his role as her relentless pursuer. The action is raw and confronting and about as close to realism as one can expect while the characters are reaching for their high Cs.

The music is sublime, the chorus work impeccable and the ever-interchanging set a marvel of bleakness. And the scene on the road to the Siberian prison camp remains etched deep in the psyche long after the last chords have faded.


Old tale, new twist

Opera Australia’s season goes from strength to strength. Forgive the cynic in me, but it seems it has at last got the message that Melbourne wants and deserves equality with Sydney and is fed up with the same old pap.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi is a case in point. This rarely seen Bellini work, which is stoutly promoted as not being a reworking of Romeo and Juliet but which, in fact, is a reworking of Romeo and Juliet, provides a wonderful night of opera such as Melbourne has long waited to see. It is moving, lyrical, excellently staged and wonderfully sung.

Romeo is a “pants” role admirably filled by Catherine Carby as a delicate foil to Hye Seoung Kwon’s Juliet.

Not surprisingly, as it is a co-production with Opera Ireland and Opera North (UK) and directed by Ireland’s Orpha Phelan (where was the Aussie input?), the scene has shifted from Venice to a war-torn Ireland – or any other place you care to name where there is deep-seated religious and civil strife.

A memorable night – at last!

A jarring portrait

Victorian Opera has to be commended for its policy of encouraging and presenting new works. But why does so much modern music have to be tuneless, jarring and painful to the ear?

The premiere of Rembrandt’s Wife (now on at the Merlyn Theatre at the Malthouse) told a largely unknown story with plenty of drama and intrigue but the music was so dysfunctional. What’s wrong with a good melody?

Sue Smith (much praised for her numerous TV dramas for the ABC) provided a tight and dramatic libretto but Andrew Ford’s accompanying score did little to underscore, illuminate or enhance what was taking place on stage.

Gary Rowley does a fine job in the lead role and there are stand-out performances from Roxanne Hislop and all other cast members. The staging is imaginative and complimentary with mounds of coloured grains resembling an artist’s palatte.

The individual components are undeniably good but the overall product falls short – mostly because the music lacks appeal or interest. A story looking for a playwright rather than a composer.