It would seem Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini has got an idea about what the future of grand opera might involve: slick, digital sets made up of high definition LED panels. Opera Australia’s new production of Aida uses ten massive, stage-filling screens that slide in and out of place and spin, creating a captivating cinematic experience that fuses live performance and video. Italian director Davide Livermore is clearly of the opinion that “more is more” and has created a production that undoubtedly succeeds. There are endless sparkles, gold gilding on just about every surface, huge headdresses and some of the loudest singing (and I mean literally, in decibels) I’ve ever heard in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. He absolutely leans into the melodrama of the piece with all his staging and choreography.
“Bronwyn Douglass’s focussed and fiery Donna Elvira is a force to be reckoned with… she commands the stage space in any scene with a pointed purpose. Her precise, fluid tone matches her character’s gutsy but ill-fated plight. Douglass is a fine anchor with regards to vocal blend in ensemble moments. In the trio singing when hunting the libertine Don Juan, she creates shimmering soundscapes… Her window scene and trio (‘Ah taci ingiusto core’) with the soon to be switched Leporello and Don Giovanni is beautifully shaped. The trajectory of her comic-tragic character are always delivered with verve and perfect dramatic timing.”
The central scene is the famous dance of the seven veils. It is basically a strip-tease, and so Edwards transports us to Kings Cross, where two brilliant dancers (not named in the programme) dance out male sexual fantasies about women – pole dancers, French maids, scantily clad nuns, etc. This somewhat postmodern stepping out of the narrative works very well, supported by Strauss' surprisingly un-dance-like music, and make it clear that the dance is not just for Herod, but for all the men, misogynist or otherwise, in the audience.
...while the Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova is a glorious Countess, plumbing the depths as her philandering husband chases every piece of skirt within reach.
The moments of gorgeous female singing, though, were not limited to Alleaume. Ekaterina Sadovnikova sang the Countess with remarkable clarity and assurance in line and phrasing. Her Countess had a patient poise – a wonderful contrast to Alleaume’s light-footed Susanna – creating a touching depiction of a dignified woman struggling under the weight of her husband’s infidelity.
I confess that I had misgivings about Opera Australia translating Die Zauberflöte into what appeared in the promotional material to be a performance fusing influences from Indiana Jones, Crocodile Dundee and Australia. I love the traditional costumes and sets and the fine meshing of the German libretto with Mozart's musical notions. And would a touring company have singers with the necessary technical expertise, assured comic timing and the stagecraft to do justice to the Opera – (or Singspiel as it was known in Mozart's time)?
This last – and quirkiest – of Mozart’s operas has always been the ideal vehicle for introducing opera to the young and the young at heart. This production – adapted, translated into English and directed by playwright Michael Gow – certainly makes the most of the comic aspects of librettist Schikaneder’s story and characters and the correspondingly magical fun that Mozart had with the music. And though the adaptation – and some of the local idioms in the translation – may not appeal to opera ‘purists’, Christopher Lawrence’s words in the program notes suggest that this is as it should be: “The Magic Flute’s great achievement is to have positioned itself as part of the vernacular furniture from day one”.
THIS one’s an absolute fair dinkum cracker of an opera. Since Simon Phillips directed a new production of The Elixir of Love for Opera Australia in 2001, nothing has rusted away in this corrugated iron-clad vision of Donizetti’s comic gem under revival director Matthew Barclay. The ubiquitous corrugations, the sounds of bleating sheep, whinnying horses, squawking galahs, barking dogs and mooing cows give the two-act opera a true-blue, Aussie-baked flavour. It is one of Opera Australia’s most inventive and entertaining productions and it milks the comedy to the hilt. Phillips seamlessly slips the original 18th century Basque setting somewhere into rural Australia in 1915. From start to finish it’s a rollicking good ride, as his own surtitled Aussie lingo translation indulges while the cast sing Romani’s original Italian libretto with gusto.
I encountered this production in Dandenong last year, at the start of another tour of the country. With another invitation to review, I thought it might have been a new production, but it wasn’t, and many of the performers were retained.
Opera Australia has served up its current production of La traviata for, astonishingly, almost thirty years – and it's easy to see why. Directed by the late Elijah Moshinsky (and revived by Warwick Doddrell), it’s a traditional, well-crafted chocolate sampler box of an opera, designed to provide a pleasing and easily ingested night out. Its great strength is its lavish Belle Époque setting. Michael Yeargan’s sets boast a no-expenses-spared attention to detail, with the Act 1 and 2 salons so richly decked you can almost hear the velvet chatting across the pearls to the brocade. His sets are cleverly designed to hint at a larger, bustling society outside. There are expressively-angled corridors, hints of antechambers and dining rooms hidden behind drapery and grilles, unseen front gardens, and a portion of a giant skylight (Nigel Levings’ lighting design) by which we catch glimpses of ornate gilt stencilling. Peter J Hall’s costumes are equally beautiful, using rich jewel-toned fabrics edged in lashings of fine jewellery. Moshinsky's team were reportedly inspired by Impressionist artwork, and that textured, vivid aesthetic covers the whole performance in a romantic painterly sheen. So far, so good. The production, though, needs a charismatic and well-matched cast to rise above mere confectionary status, and I’m not sure the chemistry quite got there. Our Violetta was sung by the Russian soprano Irina Lungu. Her Violetta is a glamorous creature who wears a performative façade as shiny as her pearls, a coquettish mask seemingly constructed from years of experience and necessity. There was even one moment in Act 1 when, caught in her first passionate embrace with Alfredo, she seems to break the fourth wall and wink at the audience. It’s a different interpretation from Opera Australia favourite Stacey Alleume’s warm and natural Violetta (in July's casting), but will please audiences who like their soprano arias served with diva glitter on the side. Lungu leans into showing off an almost knowingly flamboyant coloratura, which perhaps explains why her vibrato became a bit too wide for my liking at times, sometimes veering into shaking jaw territory. However, she has a mature ease with the role borne from a lot of experience, and a wonderful power at the top and bottom ends of her range – the high notes were clean and assured firecrackers of sound. Opening night’s Alfredo was the Melbourne tenor Tomas Dalton, a last-minute replacement for Ji-Min Park. Dalton has a smooth, gently mellow voice and characterised Alfredo as a baby-faced, lovesick puppy – one got the impression of a wide-eyed private school boy who’d only recently learnt to shave. There were pitching issues throughout, but Dalton deserves credit for stepping into a big role at the last minute. We got a glimpse of his full theatrical capacity in the Act 2 finale, when his father’s reproach sends him into a tailspin. I would have liked to witness more of Dalton at that emotional dial, and look forward to seeing him channel that capacity in future performances. The real standout for me was the Western Australian baritone Luke Gabbedy, as Giorgio Germont. He sung with a penetrating brightness to his vocal resonance, had an enunciation that was refreshingly clear but never overdone, and his phrasing demonstrated an assured understanding of Germont’s arias. Gabbedy was a good theatrical match for Lungu (more equal in energy than Dalton), and their duet “Morrò! La mia memoria” was a plaintively poignant high point. Opera Australia often cast supporting roles very well, and this Traviata was no exception. Celeste Haworth reprised Flora with her usual handsome singing and stage charm, backed by very fine vocal and theatrical performances from Iain Henderson, Alexander Sefton and Andrew Moran (Gastone, Baron Douphol, and the Marquis d’Obigny respectively). Danita Weatherstone, Richard Anderson, Jin Tea Kim, Jonathan McCauley and Malcolm Ede were all noticeably good as the supporting “downstairs” cast of the lady’s maid Annina, Dr Grenvil, Giuseppe, and the messenger and servant. The Opera Australia chorus were also a highlight. Musically on form, they seemed to be having the time of their lives (especially in Act 2’s witty tambourine dance) and charmed their way through every act – they made you really want to join the party. A final shoutout goes to the Opera Australia Orchestra under Tahu Mattheson’s baton. The upper strings sounded unusually thin at times, but were balanced by wonderfully mellow lower strings and brass. All in all, this is a very handsome, pleasant night at the opera. While not everyone can feel satisfied on sampler chocolates alone (no matter how nice the packaging), it will gratify audiences looking for that familiar, traditional operatic fix.
Shanul Sharma, performing the role of Gandhi, had a captivating element to his voice – a sense of romantic heroism that followed through to his performance, presenting a princely interpretation of the well-known historical figure
There was an ethereal quality about tenor Shanul Sharma’s interpretation of Gandhi, especially in his solo that brought the performance to a close; his voice gently shimmered like the dark, embroidered tunic he had changed into (having previously sported a creamy linen suit).
RAMEAU: ANACREAON & PIGMALION, Pinchgut Opera at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, 15-20 June 2017. Photography: above - l-r Lauren Zolezzi, Taryn Fiebig and Samuel Boden; below - Taryn Fiebig and Richard Anderson Pinchgut artistic director Erin Helyard can be relied upon to do something unusual or unexpected and he’s exceeded expectations with this triple bill. It introduces audiences for the first time to the live experience of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Anacréon followed by the intermezzo Erighetta e Don Chilone by Leonardo Vinci and, in the second half of the program, by Rameau’s Pigmalion. Dating from the mid-1700s, they clearly show us the difference between the French and Italian styles of the time, which caused much wrangling among contemporary audiences and now – you choose. For me Rameau is a sublime master of multiple soloists and harmonies. His music is elegant yet full of colour and emotion and as sung by Taryn Fiebig, Lauren Zolezzi, Richard Anderson and Allegra Giagu in Anacreon, then with Samuel Boden in Pigmalion, it made Vinci’s jolly romp-with fart joke worth its place as the flatulence in the musical sandwich. Director Crystal Manich, with set designer Alicia Clements and Melanie Liertz (costumes), ingeniously devised a way to link the three. The setting is an upscale art gallery where swanky benefactors’ events take place; think the Met Museum Gala transposed to crinolines rather than transparent boob tubes. The setting – tall and Enlightenment simple – suits the City Recital Hall and the predominant set and costume colours of icecream pastels is reflected in the blond wood interior: sumptuous and effective even as racks of costumes are wheeled on and off stage and the performers dress and re-dress for each piece. There is also some slyly symbolic work with giant picture frames that plays with “the look” and”the gaze” in a witty and post-modern (!) way. All this busyness successfully carries singers and audience through the more static elements of Anacréon in particular and also adds to the intimacy of opera that’s now virtually lost in the present day penchant for grandeur. The over-arching themes of life and art and imitations of both are deliciously played out, with the Orchestra of the Antipodes led by Erin Helyard out front and sounding both unified and energetic, and when joined by the chorus, often rapturously magnificent. Such a treat! The singers, of course, are among the best. Soprano Taryn Fiebig takes on three different roles with equal power and élan and is also one of the funnier actors in opera. Her final turn as the “statue” in Pigmalion is breathtaking as she finds a bell-like clarity and purity that lifts her performance into the ravishingly memorable. Memorable too as Cupid in both the Rameau pieces, London-based Australian soprano Lauren Zolezzi’s debut in Sydney makes one hope she’ll be back before too long. Like Fiebig, she isn’t afraid to act and as a former ballet dancer, she has the moves too and can do it all while singing with charm, agility and power: major talent on the rise and already recognised in the UK. As Anacreon (and Don Chilone) baritone Richard Anderson has the necessary dramatic and vocal presence both as a drunk and a high society patriarch – some might think it a natural combination – and he’s excellent in both roles. Samuel Boden is at the other end of the vocal scale, as Pigmalion, and his agile and intricate tenor is a judiciously placed and delightful instrument. In supporting roles, Allegra Giagu and Morgan Balfour not only held their own but also added to the vocal richness of the evening. Giagu has developed into a strong and confident performer whose Wife of Anacreon is poignant and beautifully sung, while Balfour makes every moment of his role as the Sweeper count. A terrific company, intelligently utilised. Pinchgut Opera is a vital and increasingly important part of Sydney’s fine music life as the company brings to audiences the kind of work, voices and new/old revelations many crave. Unless you read this before tonight (Tuesday, 20 June) you’ve missed this production. Fair warning: Pinchgut’s Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi opens on 30 November, directed by Mark Gaal.
Erin Helyard, Artistic Director of Sydney's Pinchgut Opera Company, is one of the most dynamic thinkers in the world on the subject of Baroque and early Classical opera. The 15-year-old Company has now presented 18, often unknown, works from that era, challenging audiences with their delightful difference from the works being presented in the Sydney Opera House – much Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. So this dégustation – an appropriately French word applied by Helyard to this triple bill consisting of two actes-de-ballet by Rameau and a commedia dell'arte intermezzo by Leonardo Vinci, was probably as close as most of us are going to get to being in the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris in the 1750s. Two problems, though. Whereas the outrageous combination of serious French works discussing topical issues and frothy Italians offering nothing but entertainment was a matter of such controversy in Paris that the Académie was filled night after night, we are just a little less engaged by an argument about the relative importance of love and wine, or a philosophical disquisition on consciousness as Pigamlion's statue comes to life. Secondly, the musical delights of Rameau's harmonies and Vinci's lyricism that pre-figures Mozart were all too often interrupted between the performers and our ears by an almost incomprehensibly busy staging. I can't imagine why American director Crystal Manich felt the need to impose an overarching narrative on the three distinct stories. Pigamlion's pretty familiar (especially when spelled with a Y, though Rameau resisted), even if the Enlightenment significance of the statue's first words, “What do I think? What must I believe?”, followed by her proclamation of a soul certainly distinguished this text from My Fair Lady. And who amongst us took on board that the eponymous Anacreon was actually a Greek BC poet famous for his graceful writings on love and wine who's lust for life lead to fear of aging? But as Rameau's librettist, Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard, brought all those subjects into play so lightly, did we need the crowding of a contemporary art gallery opening – showing, oddly, 19th-century art – a drunken collector and a team of constantly moving attendants? It made it so much harder to understand the sudden transformation of party-goers into Bacchic devotees, and for a plaited schoolgirl to become Cupid to bring the collector back to his senses from an over-indulgence in the wine. However, Lauren Zolezzi emerged as the star of the night in that role – popping up later (and older) to bring life to Pigmalion's statue. This UK-trained soprano also has a Fellowship in Movement Direction, which allowed her to make ballet with her arms without looking the slightest bit immoderate, even as her perky singing brought Richard Anderson's art collector back from his drunken dreams to his wife's arms. Counter-intuitively, they then all toasted this reunion. Anderson was then given an ex-wife to fall in love with in Erighetta e Don Chilone. In fact, Vinci offered the widow Erighetta a rich but hypochondriac (and flatulent) bachelor, already attracted to her, but reluctant to commit because of his “imminent demise”. Taryn Fiebig, in a commedia doctor's mask, soon prescribes marriage to a mature woman as Don Chilone's only possible cure. And within minutes, as herself, she's negotiated a contract promising free running of the house. All is well. Well, well-enough for Fiebig (who, coincidentally, played Eliza Doolittle for Opera Australia last year) to mutate into marble and fall resonantly in love (again) with her creator – the agile English haute-contre tenor, Samuel Boden. Not much haute in his music and not great power in the voice; but he may have been distracted by the fact that everyone around him suddenly deserted their contemporary dress for racks of 18th-century outfits in order to dance. We certainly were distracted. Meanwhile, the band played on. It was an impressive transition by the historically informed Orchestra of the Antipodes from last year's Haydn and Handel to French music that so closely allies its rhythms to its language. Their languid tones as Anacreon falls asleep were followed by a torrent of demisemiquavers in contrary motion as a storm awakes him. A luscious flute holds Lauren Zolezzi's lively gyrations in balance. And the mellifluous combination of bassoon and recorder in Pigamlion's swinging overture was probably as radical a piece of orchestration in 1748 as it was a delight on the ear today. Leading from the harpsichord, Erin Helyard made the point in interviews that 18th-century audiences had as short-term attention spans as today's – requiring dances, debate and (in the boxes) sex between short bursts of opera seria. But this would surely be preferable to offering confusions and distractions during the music.
With bright ideas, solid voices and drama sewn with pathos that doesn’t let a bag of spectacular effects overwhelm it, the outdoor experience of Opera Australia’s La bohème makes for a memorable and enchanting night out on Sydney Harbour. Generously backed by Dr Haruhisa Handa and his International Foundation for Arts and Culture - with the NSW government well onboard an annual event that has lured more than 300,000 attendees over its now seventh season - the stakes are high to deliver a thrilling night that ticks umpteen boxes for a broad cross-sectional audience. It would seem that the magic formula has well and truly proven itself. It’s an immense and superbly-organised affair that shares the art form with a mix of passion and unapologetic splendour and one that warmly connects first-timers and returnees alike. And if money’s to be made, we’ll see it trickle with the spirit of generosity through all levels of the art form. Correct? At the core of La bohème is passionate new love, hope against the odds and the unquestioning generosity of heart amongst friends. In Andy Morton’s first time in the director’s chair - after assisting on five previous harbour spectaculars - the work gleams with overall integrity, fortunately capturing the intimacy and strain between the leading lovers when and where it demands. In this case, it’s the 1960s. Morton updates Puccini’s four-tableaux acts set in Paris’ 1830s Latin Quarter to more than a century later in the same district during the turbulence of the student riots, specifically, 1968.
Something happens at the end of Pinchgut Opera’s “Platée” that lifts this production from brilliant to moving. It’s a brainwave of director Neil Armfield’s that should be concealed from those who may yet see this production – the Australian premiere season of Rameau’s 1745 opera – at Sydney’s Angel Place Recital Hall or yet purchase the forthcoming digital release. Blink and you might miss it but it’s a detail that has the potential to take your breath away.
The second opera on the billboard of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma's summer season is Puccini's Madama Butterfly. I was in the audience at the first performance on 16 July 2021, a windy evening that threatened thunderstorms. This is neither a new production nor a revival but a re-staging of a production seen at the Baths of Caracalla in 2015 adapted to the different conditions, especially the huge stage. The theatre was very full as the production, already revived in 2016 at the Baths of Caracalla, had been a huge success whose memory remained alive to the inhabitants of Rome.
On January 13, 2001, La Traviata opened, with a starry cast, led by the artistic director and Verdi specialist, Simone Young. Three years later, almost to the day, the curtain goes up on the same, gloriously bedecked Parisian salon, with a new cast and no Young.
Damiano Michieletto’s Olivier Award-winning productions of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci were premiered in 2015 and then put on again in 2017 but not since. Here they were splendidly revived by former Jette Parker Young Artist Noa Naamat and continue to justify that Olivier! The nineteenth century was ending, and audiences turned from Wagner’s gods and heroes to embrace post-Verdian verismo with its stories that reflected real-life happenings. The birth of this movement came with the premiere of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in Rome on 17 May 1890. It was soon twinned with Leoncavallo’s 1892 Pagliacci and together they caused verismo to sweep Europe influencing many diverse art forms. New York’s Metropolitan Opera first paired the works in 1893 and they were first seen together at Covent Garden the following year except the order we are used to today was reversed. The Cav & Pag double-header soon proved as popular as the regularly performed Puccini operas or genuine Verdi masterpieces in the affections of opera lovers, though recently they have fallen somewhat out of favour. Before Michieletto’s staging of Cav & Pag they had not been performed together by the Royal Opera for more than 25 years. From around that time I have some exhilarating memories of Plácido Domingo (Turiddu/Canio), Giuseppe Giacomini (Turiddu), Jon Vickers (Canio), Pauline Tinsley and Josephine Barstow (as Santuzza) and Piero Cappuccilli (Alfio/Tonio); several sadly no longer with us. Perhaps a reassessment of the operas is overdue and what Michieletto does with them can only help.
La commedia è finita (almost). Former Prime Minister Theresa May was in the house for its Cav & Pag double bill, an evening of bitter feuds, betrayal and murder. Michael Gove reportedly left before curtain-up. It’s been a fraught few weeks in Floral Street. There have been more cast reshuffles in this Royal Opera revival than Boris Johnson’s cabinet of late: Anita Rachvelishvili out, Ermonela Jaho out, Jonas Kaufmann missing the first two performances and deciding not to sing Canio when he does get on stage. At one point, Kaufmann’s replacement in Pagliacci bowed out of the first two nights as well. It was the Alagnas who rode heroically to the rescue. Aleksandra Kurzak took on the roles of Santuzza and Nedda (thereby requiring an acting double because Damiano Michieletto has each character silently appear in the intermezzo of the other’s opera) and Roberto Alagna sang Canio. And as Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, we had SeokJong Baek who had already come off the subs’ bench, to excellent effect, in the recent Samson et Dalila.
Kate Amos was frank and subtly defiant as daughter Arkie, unprotected from her father’s excesses, singing with fine edge and unexpected strength.
Their daughter, Arkie, was played by two different singers:….while Kate Amos demonstrated a highly flexible soprano as the older Arkie.
“Rame Lahaj (...) radiates unbridled passion across the water.”
“As Alfredo Germont the Kosovar tenor Rame Lahaj perfectly conveyed the naiveté of a very young man who would fall heedlessly in love with a society woman, oblivious of the extent to which she lives off the generosity and sexual needs of wealthy benefactors. His duet with Alleaume towards the end of the opera, when they are trying to delude themselves into re-imagining a happy future in Paris (“Parigi, o cara“), was striking in the contrast of vocal color between them: Alleaume clearly conveyed the ravages of a mortal disease as Lahaj bloomed in oblivious full health.”
“In his Australian debut, Rame Lahaj cut a dashing figure as Alfredo Germont. Not only is his voice strong enough to carry far into the back of the auditorium, it is also smooth and flexible enough to deliver the nuances of his wildly fluctuating moods. Reaching his high notes with ease and holding firmly on to them, he deftly handled a variety of inflections and finely honed phrasing. Expressive without being melodramatic, neither did he overplay his hand.”
“Hailing from Kosovo, Lahaj is the most exciting Alfredo seen locally since Gianluca Terranova in the inaugural Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. A terrific actor, Lahaj charts the full emotional journey of Alfredo, from ardent admirer to impassioned lover, through to his brutish anger and subsequent shame and sorrow. Despite his striking looks, Lahaj clearly conveys Alfredo’s shy awkwardness at first meeting Violetta. His countenance changes as a dark storm cloud overtakes Alfredo’s logic, which then melts away with as deep regret takes over […] Possessing a rich, luxurious voice, Lahaj moves easily from middle to upper register with equal strength. If there are fleeting moments when his pitching is not quite accurate, it may well have be due to opening night nerves, which will soon dissipate as the season progresses. Combined with his charismatic presence, and his clear enjoyment of being on stage, the tone and lustre of Lahaj’s voice portent a very exciting future […] The perfect choice for newcomers, long-term operagoers will also enjoy and appreciate this season of La Traviata for the thrilling debuts of Gore and Lahaj.”
The opera Madama Butterfly will boast a giant sun, 20 metres in diameter, rising out of Sydney Harbour, as well as a large moon for a night of passion.
“Mariangela Sicilia sang Mimi with an adroitly controlled and flexibly coloured voice, bringing sweetness and variety to the love confession of the first act.”