Tuesday, October 25, 2016

New music telling an old story

I have hesitated to write this post. Not because of anything wrong with the show, far from it. But simply because, this was the first time I have heard two friends who I have known on line for more years than I care to remember, two friends I love and respect, and I struggled to work out how to show them the respect and love due them and their performances, and yet not give the impression of being totally uncritical.

So, first of all, the story was Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's tale of love, passion and redemption, in a new setting with words by Diane Olsen and a score by Louis Karchin, a new composer for me. His music fits within a very traditional framework, with clearly designated arias and recits, ensembles and the like. This is not a criticism by any means, giving us the familiar on which is built something new, is a long proven technique, and one I endorse.  His music is tonal and accessible, creating a very atmospheric sound world with his small orchestral forces (a scratch band of about 30). As you all know, Jane Eyre is a story of gothic creepiness and Karchin's orchestration clearly came from the world of creepy movie music, with added textures from harp and xylophone/marimba. The closest comparison I can think of, would be possibly a Peter Sculthorp score, mixed with Korngold. It is a score I would love to hear again in the future, with a well rehearsed full pit orchestra, as it really was quite glorious in parts, but there were times when the orchestra lacked precision in their ensemble, more I suspect from a lack of rehearsals together than anything else. Playing modern music is always fraught with traps for musicians, and I suspect there were times more rehearsal would have tightened everything from the pit.

Having said that, the conducting of Sara Jobin looked from behind a model of clarity, giving a clear beat that was easily visible to both stage and orchestra (and those towards the from of the audience), that meant the singers and orchestra were never in danger of losing each other, despite the challenges of the score.

Kristine McIntyre's production (with set and video by Luke Cantarella) was a well thought out solution to a plot that requires frequent scene changes, most simply requiring a change of chairs/tables, etc, with the projections on stage clearly creating the rest. Theses were so effective,  that running late when we arrived, we thought the staging was a complex set to show two rooms in Thornfield, the Rochester house. It was only with the scene change we realized this was all projection on blank walls.

McIntyre worked hard to bring the characters to life, Jane's nervous shrinking violet who gradually comes out of her shell, Rochester's scarred soul desperately trying to build some happiness for himself, Mrs Fairfax, the Rivers in their eccentricity, all came through as solid characters. And, unlike another production I saw in NYC, we never had to suspend belief that characters could not see each other, despite clearly being in view of each other.

So, voices you say? Well, first of all, this production proved that singing in English is actually quite challenging for some. Providing clear diction, while projecting over an orchestra is almost impossible for some, while for others, it proved easy. Both Kimberly Giordano (Fairfax) and Ryan MacPherson (Rochester) (both of whom I knew previously) were thankfully both models for clarity and understanding. I did feel that deciding to set Rochester as a tenor might not be the most appropriate choice for the composer, but Ryan brought out the tortured soul well, giving him depth and strength, as well as portraying a character we wanted to livke, and see happy.

Kimberly brought life to Mrs Fairfax, making her flesh and blood, not just a character there for others to engage with. She was a part of the fabric of the household and clearly cared for the inhabitants in it. Her acting, coupled with her ability to make every word clear while maintaining a solid vocal line meant she was more important to driving the story forward than the size of her role might suggest.

As Jane Eyre, Jennifer Zetlan looked and acted the part with aplomb. Her words may not have been as clear as others, but, she was also dealing with what sounded like quite challenging vocal writing, so, the amount of words that were clear, was certainly a credit also. Her role is of course also far and away the longest, and she never flagged or showed signs of tiring, just focused and in character while pouring her heart out in long lines of music that covered her whole range.

Other characters were performed with aplomb, but really, this is a score that revolves around these three characters, with others getting featured, but only for a brief portion. There was a small ensemble of women who featured as Jane's pupils for the scene in the school, who also assisted with moving furniture on stage in the Thornfield scenes in costume as servants, usually with Mrs Fairfax in character, ordering them around.

So, to sum up, this is an opera that I would like to see again, that would work in a standard opera company's season. It is not one to scare the horses. And, it also is a story that is well known, even if much abridged in its telling. In this shortened form, it certainly stands up as a great night at the theatre.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Swiss Patriots

Right, so for my first Met visit I lucked into a good one. A well cast and sung opera I did not know well, or how it ended, in a serviceable production I'm going to call it. The things that were needed were there, there a few gimmicks, but nothing that took    away from telling the story. And a number of items that with thought may end up being quite telling to the director's thoughts on the opera.

First though, how good is it to be in a theatre where the sound does not turn to mush. After the clarity of the overture onward, going back to the sound of the orchestra pit at Sydney Opera House will be something I won't relish. 

The new production is the one mounted by the Dutch National Opera, by Pierre Audi, who clearly had a good handle on the characters and story, nothing jumped out as out of character, even if a couple of the characters do seem 1 dimensional. Why is Gesler such a cartoon style villain? The libretto does not tell us, and it seems just accepted that he is the evil vicious governor on behalf of the Austrians, with no indication that anyone else objects. Until Mathilde decides to stand up and use her imperial rank to overrule him over Tell's son 

So, to the singers. There was a big cast in WT, and all of then were clearly audible, despite being in the balcony, a considerable distance for voices to carry. As Tell, we had Gerald Finley, bringing both flexibility of tone and dignity to the role. It's a long role, and he never showed signs of flagging, as he portrayed the famous hero of the piece. This was a role that showed why he is one of the most sought after singers in the world today, it was a remarkable performance. Why he was dressed like a Jedi master, I am not sure.

As the tortured and lovelorn second hero Arnold, we had Bryan Hymel, bringing all his power and high notes, and considerable flexibility to this role. If Tell was the soul of the piece, Arnold was the heart, torn between family and homeland, and the imperial Mathilde, who he met in the past, who returns his love. Loving the enemy never ends well, in these things, and this couple provides much of the complications.

The princess herself was sung by Marina Rebeka, bringing a highly flexible, focused, if somewhat hard sound to her florid writing, but that bloomed wonderfully into a big lush sound in her more lyrical moments. Her costumes seemed variations on Victorian era riding habits, changing from black to white as she begins to distance herself from Gesler and his regime. 

The evil Gesler was played by John Relyea, being loud and obnoxious, as he is well capable. It's not a voice you expect in Rossini, but then, it is not written full of his usual complex flexible vocal lines, this is more Verdi-style villain writing, which he clearly enjoyed. 

I keep mentioning things as being unlike Rossini's normal style, and indeed, at times it did not feel like Rossini. The final chorus especially, has moments where you think, Rossini wrote this? It sounds 20th century. Other times, it is very clear, this is the same composer who wrote the Barber of Seville. The long well known overture is clearly his, with its long crescendi and strident calls to arms. Yet, the same composer writes proto-20 century music to end the night? It all seems a little unexpected. What isn't unexpected is Rossini's need of a good editor. This is NOT a short opera, and frequently the same music and words are repeated over, thus, there are times when it seems what would be a whole aria, but is only part in Rossini's world, is repeated, just to emphasis how lovely it was, and how heartbroken/eager to fight/in love they really are. A ruthless editor could easily chop 1/10 from the piece I think, if the repeats were killed. But, then, this was a French grand opera, where nothing is short. 

Speaking of French grand opera, the big ballet scene in Act 3 was handled very well, it helped to build the antagonism between the Swiss and the Austrians, demonstrating their heartlessness towards them. It was also one of those situations where the chorus has to take part (always fraught), but thankfully their dance part was fairly simple in a large complex scene. But pity the chorus who had to go from singing to dancing energetically to singing... 

So, all round a great night. Lots of great singing, a chance to see a piece I am never likely to see mounted in Sydney. And a rollicking good story, even if it took far longer to tell, than it needed to. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Because I needed to say it

It was 1983 or there about when I got Bowie by seeing him on Countdown. I have no recollection of seeing/hearing him before (but I must of) but there he was on my TV in the video for Let’s Dance.

Suddenly, I got it. Here was this big star who was unashamedly different. Who, as I discovered later, was at the time, in his most normal phase he had been in. At that stage, I was a teen-ager trying to find myself, still very much in the shadow of my big brother who had always seemed a larger than life character, and who I was always compared to at school (the fate of younger siblings in country schools, the world over I suspect)

Seeing him, living his life out loud and proud, flamboyant as all hell, and not giving a damn, helped me, a young confused guy struggling to make sense of a world at around 14-15, to see that ultimately what others thought did not matter, living live on your terms was all that mattered. And that if you did, it was possible to be hugely successful. (It took a while to realise that you also have to have big talent and work insanely hard, which, yeah, that was never going to happen)

So, years later, David Bowie has died. Since I first “got him” I can honestly say his music has always been in my life somehow. I’ve not been the biggest fan, or gone and bought all his albums (I can remember buying 3, - a greatest hits, Let’s Dance, and Tonight, which says more about where my headspace was at the time, than the brilliance or otherwise of any of his albums) but his music has remained with me, thoughtful, full of words of surprising depths of emotional realness, that helped those of us who never really felt a part of the mainstream, feel like we were not alone. And, of course, also full of musical adventures that satisfied the classical musician in me. It has taken his death to really drive home, just how much he had meant to me.

So, goodbye you glorious chameleon of a man. May you remain a inspiration for us all.

So, go out, be adventurous, be true to yourself, and make lots of art. Some of it will be great art.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Forest high jinks with Janáček

So, Janáček and his “Cunning Little Vixen”. Not an opera I would recommend for a young cast. Or a training company. One could say, an opera that many companies need to think carefully before performing. It is full of odd rhythms and complex textures, yet requires a cast to imitate all sorts of forest creatures, not just the humans that also feature in it. It also requires an intensely physical performance to pull off, thus most opera singers find it tough.

So, how did Pacific Opera handle it? Well, mostly pretty well. They had the very impressive Sydney Youth Orchestra firing away in the pit under the baton of Alexander Briger producing all kinds of glorious sounds, doing justice to the complex score. In some ways, they were the stars of the show.

The production itself was a reframing of the story as a dream the Forester has, reliving how Harasta got to marry the beautiful gypsy that various men in the town had chased. To me, this added an element of confusion, rather than clarity to the story. It did however help to justify some of the more crazy elements, but when your story is basically “circle of life” stuff and ends with a scene where your lead character sings a song in praise of the glory of nature and her renewal, making most of it a dream seems counter intuitive. But, then, I am a fan of taking a work and presenting it, not taking the music and making it what you want it to be about, as some directors seem keen.

So, what of the performers you say? Well, unfortunately, a decision was made to mic all the leads and have them perform with headsets like most music theatre is done now. Now, while I understand the reasoning (a large number of the singers would not have been heard over the orchestra), I would have rather had the orchestration reduced, and allowed the singers to sing unmiced, though I realise that much of the pleasure I got from the performance was because the orchestra was so good and that would have been lost.

And the main reason I say I would have preferred it, is because a lot of the singing got distorted thanks to the amplification. I was told there was a fault causing it, but to my ear, a lot of the problem came from the sound guys not being used to dealing with highly resonant voices with a big volume range, as for the most part, the quieter singers seemed to come off better via the mics, but the big voices seemed to suffer more.

So, considering that, to the performers. As the Forester we had Alexander Knight, a young baritone who I have heard before singing up a storm in Handel, and doing it well. Giving him Forester at this stage of his career seemed cruel, as while a beautiful voice, well produced, this is a role that is a long way off into his future. (A future that in the short term involves him going off to sing at Wiesbaden as a house singer at their opera) Having said that, he was a compelling performer in the role, making you believe in him as the older man who has watched the world change over the years.

His Vixen, (sung by Alexandra Flood) similarly was impressive in characterisation. Her voice seemed well suited to the role, although both she and Alexander had the most problems with their voices being distorted by the mics. What came across was good, but the amplification really did her no favours. Both she and Alexander would have been able to sing over the orchestra without them (although some of the staging might have needed to be changed to ensure that) but they would have both been working harder to do it.

Also vocally impressive was Jared Lillehagen as the priest. His smaller role was sung very well and brought off his inner conflicts well. (him being very easy on the eye was also noted)

As to the ensemble work, mostly it was very tight. There were times when voices got lost in the mess of the amplification, but it sounded together. The chickens scene was very well handled with the singers adopting very hen-like movements, despite not being dressed in costumes that gave any sense of that. Many of the other animals could have been anything (apart from the children playing leapfrog at the end) I can see the reasoning behind not making the animal costumes clear that are usual for this opera, but there is a bigger reason for them. It makes it easier to bring the characters to life. Having the same chorus be the animals in the woods, and the chickens and the villagers at a wedding in the same costume, does not really make for clarity in story telling.

But, ultimately, this was an opera that, as much as it is telling a story, the real star remains the orchestral writing. Sure there are some places for the lead singers (or the chorus) to shine, but ultimately, they tend to come off second best, beside the glorious orchestral score, that creates the forest scenes so well. And, that was what we were left with at the end, memories of some extraordinary music making.

(Incidentally, if this seems a tad harsh, I probably should make it clear, the performers all did a fantastic job with what they were given, but I don't think this was a wise choice for Pacific Opera to perform)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ferruccio Furlanetto is God, or something damn close to it

If there is a scene that is the heart and soul of Don Carlo, or Don Carlos, as OperaAustralia insist on calling it, it is that big scene for Filippo at the start of the third act. First of all he pours out his heart lamenting the fact that he is married to someone who has never loved him, who he should never have married. Then, he is joined by the Grand Inquisitor, who proceeds to tell him what he should do, and threatens the king, showing clearly that despite his temporal power, he is only there at the mercy of the church, and possibly also because he is easier to control than who might follow. It is also the big showpiece for the bass playing the king, being the time when he gets to allow himself to be the man, rather than the monarch and husband. In the right hands it can be a riveting piece of singing acting that shows the man behind the crown. In the wrong hands, it becomes a piece of indulgence that holds up the story.

Needless to say, in this production we had the master of this role, singing as if he has lived this life, slipping into the troubled King's shoes as comfortably as we might our favourite pair of slippers. And what a treat, to see and hear the definitive Filippo of our time, live in the flesh! When his opening notes of the monologue, which he effectively sings into his hand that is supporting his head, and which are still clarion clear at the back of the theatre, you know why this man has the reputation he does. That he can do that, and make us care for this tyrant who we already know is responsible for the death of thousands, such is the power of his performance. Oh, and the power of Verdi's masterful writing too, of course.

And yes, having Ferruccio Furlanetto sing this role was the reason I had decided that this would be a must see performance, even before I knew we had Latonia Moore in the role of his wife Elisabetta de Valois. As probably the current Aida of choice for opera companies everywhere, her performance in the theatre here a few years ago remains something I will not forget. If this was not quite that potent a performance, I do think that it is one that she will grow into, with a few more outings, till it is the equal of her Aida. So, think not incredible, but merely very good. This is a queen being torn apart by duty vs emotion, who fell in love on first sighting the young man who later becomes her stepson. Yes, I know, only in opera! To be sure, that glorious voice with its beautiful creamy high notes is still glorious, and the ability to put into a look so much feeling that it carries to the back of the theatre was there. But I still think that she has more to give in this role, I do not think she has plumbed its depths yet and lived with it long enough to build the strength of characterisation that makes her Aida so devastatingly good.

Then we had the Rodrigo of Jose Carbo, a role I know he has long wanted to play, and clearly relishing the opportunity he has been given. Hearing someone you used to sing with a significant number of years ago living up to their potential is always a thrill. When they are singing in such exalted company and showing they belong there too, it is a magical thing. Needless to say, he lives the role, and he is singing better and better each time I hear him, pouring out the sounds in a way that clearly shows he knows the role backwards and lives the meaning of all of it. His death scene was especially well sung.

I mentioned before the Grand Inquisitor (played by Daniel Sumegi) who has that delicious snarling duel of a scene with the king. I did not mention that he was played and sung beautifully. He clearly plays someone who is used to getting his every demand met, who has grown old and yet remains still very much the feared arm of punishment that the church uses to bend others to its will. The somewhat harsh sound that he produced was just right for the elderly but still in control priest.

I also have to say, for a small chorus, we get a lot of sound out of them. The start of the auto da fe scene may have been a bit quiet where I sat, but by the time the chorus were all on stage and not at the back, the sound was impressive. It is a scene that never quite makes sense to me, but Elijah Moshinsky has tried to make it work. To modern sensibilities, being excited over people going to their deaths will always be a big ask. But, he tries, and succeeds in making us see some at least in the crowd are excited.

I will say however, that the casting of Diego Torre as Don Carlo was not something I was overly pleased with. To be sure, he has the ability to sing all the notes, and sing them in a way that ensures he can be heard by all. The problem is, I am not sure it is a voice I want to hear. In the first half, he came across as having a harsh overtone somehow, or maybe it was an awkward resonance the theatre was picking up. I want to say he has the voice of a tenor villain, but I can't think of any tenor villain that needs to be that loud, apart from maybe Grimes. Either his voice improved in the second half, or I got used to it, but he still remained someone who could only sing loud or louder, which was grating against the nuanced performances of the other singers. He also did not convince me that he was still madly in love with his mother in law, which while a stretch for anyone, is essential for his character to be believable.

Also in the less than successful department was our Princess Eboli, Milijana Nikolic. Constantly drowned out in ensembles and at times seeming to run out of breath in her two big arias in awkward places. Last time I heard her in Verdi (as Azucena) I was impressed at how well she took on the role and sang it. This time, I was constantly thinking she was trying to sing a role that is much too big for her. It was quite odd. Of course, having to sing alongside some very big voices would not have helped, but it was a surprising let down given her Azucena was most impressive.

Now, having said all that, I have to say, who in their right mind when setting up the bows puts the unsatisfactory tenor in the title role in as the last to bow in a cast, when you have  two big names in opera in leads? Well, apparently our national opera company do. I could not believe they did not put Furlanetto on last, as quite frankly, he was what made this a special night. He deserved it, both for being the big name star in the company, as well as being far and away the best performer in the cast.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Now THAT is how you Turandot!

That is how you Turandot, or, maybe I should say, THAT is how you CALAF, for as much as Lise Lindstrom is amongst the finest Turandots you can hire at the moment (and, yes, she is VERY GOOD) last night's Turandot from opera Australia was very much the show of Calaf. I say that, having seen another very good Calaf in the same production previously (albeit with a less successful Turandot) a few years ago.

But, last night, was special. Very Special. I cannot remember a time when the star imported soprano got a smaller applause than the tenor in a big role. And, when that star imported soprano was singing her career defining role, and singing it very well. But, such was the caliber of the performance, that any of the six big leads in this show (Calaf, Turandot, Liu, Ping, Pang and Pong) would have not been out of place in any cast in any major opera theatre. The fact that four of them are Australian, makes me very pleased.

So, first of all, this was the much loved Graeme Murphy Turandot with the gorgeous designs of  the late Kristian Fredrickson. And yes, it is glorious magnificent from start to finish, with both costuming and other fabric used to create mood and beautiful stage pictures (see here). And, yes, this production was created with a great deal of thought, time and care. It was Graeme Murphy's first opera production, and probably will remain his finest, born of a long standing love of this opera, and his innate sense of theatre. Yes, he makes the cast move a lot more than normal (as expected when your main claim to fame is choreography and dance) but it is all done with thought, and care. If, the Ping Pang & Pong reminiscence scene is a bit too busy and silly (and I did not notice it being so last night, which reflects well on the performers) that can be blamed as much on Puccini and his librettists as on Murphy. That scene does seem too long many times, and holding up the action. But, that is its point. Last night, it became a calm peaceful respite, before the glorious loud noises of the riddle scene.

So, to the cast. It was a measure of the strength of this cast, that despite my decision to go to this performance based on the Turandot of Lise Lindstrom, at the end of Act 1, with Turandot not having sung a note, I was very happy with what I had heard.The trio of Ping Pang and Pong, in the hands of Luke Gabbedy, Graeme Macfarlane and John Longmuir really did function as one. Their antics were never a threat to their sound, and their ensemble singing was impressive.

As Timur, the mystery prince's father, we had the imposing Jud Arthur. His was a convincing old man, which for those of us who know what he looks like (tall, fit and muscular), is impressive. His was a Timur we could care about, especially as he was ably assisted by the glorious Liu of Hyeseoung Kwon. Her years of singing this role means she probably can sing it in her sleep, but, she really does embody this role. Her death will bring a tear to your eye. Everytime.

As the ice princess herself, we had the reason I chose to come to the first cast, the lovely Lise Lindstrom. Her voice is not the big warm Italianate sound of many Turandots, but the ice of a Nilsson or similar. It is a metallic sound that cuts clearly through the complexity of the orchestra and chorus singing at full pelt. And, considering that where I was sitting meant that full volume felt like low level aural assault, yes, she is loud!! And, yes, she does come much closer to a successful portrayal of the ice princess melting than most Turandots do. But, doing that is a challenge for anyone, with how it is written. Going from watching the person you are about to have tortured kill herself, to turning yourself into someone allowing herself to fall in love for the first time. Its a big ask for anyone, even with Puccini writing the music for it (though, that is assembled by Alfano for the final act in the version we heard). That Lindstrom makes you see the wavering to allowing love, and make you believe,  is no mean feat.

But, ultimately, the night belonged to the Calaf of Yonghoon Lee, and the glorious chorus. That such a small chorus can sound so large, and produce so much sound with such precision, is a powerful statement. They have long been good, but under Anthony Hunt, they are growing even stronger. Small numbers do not mean small sounds.

And the Calaf. Yonghoon actually managed to make me forget that Calaf is a complete selfish prick. His is a likeable foolhardy Calaf who you wanted to win. He poured forth large amounts of beautiful ringing secure tenor sounds from start to finish. He has a much lighter higher sound than most of the Calafs you hear. It is more the sound you might expect to hear as say Rodolfo, rather than Calaf. But, he certainly had the power to sing over the chorus, and to sing that aria with sufficient style and conviction, that to compare him to other recent tenors of significance would be churlish. This is a voice that should much better known.

But, really, last night was a night of great opera. It sounded great, it looked magnificent, and, that ultimate arbiter of technique, my throat, never started feeling sore in sympathy with any of the singers. It was the sort of night where everything was just gloriously good, and you could just wallow in the beautiful sounds that Christian Badea was pulling from the cast and orchestra. Could you ask for more?

This is the tenor who takes over in August, showing what the production looks like in full flight

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A tale of 2 opera events

So, this is the story of my attendance at two opera performances, where one was in the theatre and one was the spectacular that is Opera On The Harbour. Both very different, both a bit flashy and glam, but one moved me, and one left me feeling WTAF?

First, to the special. Faust. With the David McVicar production from the Royal Opera, a much loved and praised production, that manages to include much of his usual visual language, while still remaining true to the story and libretto. Everything that is needed is there, with a few extras (I never worked out the point of the black evening gown for Mephistopheles, but it worked in context)  and the story is told in a way that leaves this archetypal morality play still relevant for today. To be sure, we do not expect supernatural intervention in our lives, but this tale of innocence lost, and of "be careful what you ask for" still rang true, helped by superlative performances.

For this was truly international A-grade house casting. First of all, the young up coming tenor that is getting everyone excited, Michael Fabiano sang the title role. As a singer that did not automatically leap to mind in this role (I expect to hear him in Italian ones), I was impressed by his versatility. His musicianship was never in doubt, but French is a language that not every opera singer can sing successfully in. The fact that after Sydney he flew to Paris to perform the role at the Bastille Opera also probably says a lot. Needless to say, if you have the chance, I strongly recommend you go hear him, he is a very impressive singer, who is going to continue to improve.

As his love interest, we had the stunning Nicole Car, who once again showed why she is now going places. (currently singing in Berlin, then off to the Royal Opera as Tatyana) Last time I heard her, I loved her voice, but was a little underwhelmed by her acting in a role where she did not fit the production. This time, she was fine. She took the star role that Marguerite is and ran with it. If her French did not always sound French, that would be my biggest criticism, which in a young singer, is nothing that time and coaching will not fix.

And then we had Teddy Tahu Rhodes stepping into the big badboy role of Mephistopheles. And loving it. I have said before, that Teddy is such a great stage animal. Once again, he got a role to sink his teeth into and have fun with. And he did. I'm finding him sounding more basslike each time I hear him, less baritonal. And I like it. Especially in this role, where the usual performers are basses with secure top notes, not baritones who can go low. And of course, the best recorded performers of it are the Russian/eastern europe basses like Cristoff and Ghiaurov, so the darkening of Teddy's sound worked well here. Although, there is no real opportunity for him to show off his chest this time...

Then, we had the smaller parts filled out by Giorgio Caoduro as Valentine, Anna Dowsley as Siebel, Richard Anderson as Wagner and Domenica Matthews as Marthe. Each of them great singers and worthy of major roles, filling out smaller roles and making them vivid and real. And each of them well loved by Australian audiences.

The result of this? A performance of Faust that will live as the one to beat in my memories. Admittedly, only my second, and the first live, but it left me moved, and aware, that even if I will never be a Faust fan, it is certainly a much stronger work dramatically and musically than I had given it credit, in the correct hands.

Which leads me to Aida, which is a whole different kettle of fish.

First of all, Aida seems a natural fit to be mounted in stadium style productions, with big choruses and lots of put everything on you have on stage scenes. It's why it remains popular at The Met for example, who can fill their stage with hundreds of big voices raised in triumph or horror, as the mood dictates. The only problem with that idea, as everyone quickly discovers when performing Aida, is that it really is about the love triangle between the leads, stuck into the situation where they are all people of influence and importance, and love and the requirements of society do not match at all. Not to mention the requirements of religion. The big scenes are the setting of the scene for the important drama, what happens to the people at the centre of it

As a result, big flashy productions of Aida tend to fall flat on their faces if you do not have four performers giving performances that make you care about them. If you are more concerned about the spectacle than the story, then your Aida ultimately becomes the the souffle that fails to rise.

Now, to be sure, there was much to love about this production. All the voices (except one) were right for the parts. Visually, it looked amazing. It was just totally schizophrenic in its imagery. Amneris's costumes looked straight out of Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, yet Aida's looked like they belonged to the heroine of  The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I mean, I get that Aida is meant to look different to Amneris as one is Egyptian and one Ethiopian, but really??? And, that is before we start on the dancers and their outfits. Yes, let's not discuss the dancers at all, because what they had to do was mostly laughable and totally wrong in context (there was a context to them?)And their outfits belonged to the 1am show at RHI at the Sydney Mardi Gras Party.

So, yes, there was much that was quite frankly so grossly over the top, the production threatened to out camp a John Waters film. Think on that, and remember this is a serious drama about a love triangle caught up with societal pressures in a rigidly structured society. Or, it is written as such, at any rate.

Thankfully, the music making was mostly of a high standard. As Amneris, Jacqui Dark was pretty much the star of the show. Her character is traditionally the villain of this piece and she got to be that writ large. Always bringing a strong performance to her characters, here she revelled in playing the spoiler. Her voice is also well suited to the role, so she got to prowl the stage belting out her music with abandon, and generally acting the maneater, with her eye on someone else's man.

As the man in question,  Arnold Rawls brought a remarkably fresh voiced tenor to the role, singing the opening aria which trips up many, with ease. To some, he me have failed to lack the daring do needed to be convincing as the man who risks throwing everything away for love, but to me, he was more the man paralysed by love's demands, than the do-er many assumed this role must be. He certainly sang the role comfortably, with more enthusiasm than many. His was a performance that left you thinking you would not mind hearing him again.

As the title role though, we had a singer who quite frankly did not cut it. Sure, she had all the notes, and she has a reputation as a spinto soprano, but that is where the good things ended. I couldn't help thinking at times, that her staging was very clearly designed around the other cast Aida (Latonia Moore) who has the voice to make you forget anything except what she is telling you. Daria Masiero does not. What Moore could convince with the power and beauty of her voice, Masiero would do and come across as looking stagy and tired, producing a "please like me" response, that REALLY grated on me. If your heroine who is going to die at the end, cannot make you want her to live, you have failed. And, that was the biggest problem for me in a problematic production. The Nile Scene where you see Aida being torn between her love for her man, and her desire to be back in her homeland, which can be a lesson in how to sing beautiful high notes softly, became an "oh my god just get over it" trial, as well. We felt nothing for her as a character, and the sounds she was producing, were frankly not that pretty either. Certainly the worst sound I have heard from an Aida (six staged performances, 2 of them video)

For the most part, the other performers were all quite acceptable, singing what really are roles that are cyphers, rather than flesh and blood characters, although the Ramfis of Conal Coad will remain with me, purely for the camp factor. Him walking up the stage with his cape could teach Joan Crawford how to go OTT for pure campery.

However, I have to admit, knowing Aida, I still have no idea what killed them in this production. There was no attempt to try to confine them, or to place them in some sort of lower location to suggest they were trapped. Rather they were stuck alone on the middle of that huge stage. Death by excess fresh air perhaps? Certainly not the suffocation they were singing about. It was also telling that I was eager for them to get it over and just die at the end. This was not a production to leave you sobbing at the end (which it should), rather, most of us left laughing. Which, considering this is a tragic love story, is probably all you really need to know.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

I'm singing again.

So, yes, I have finally started singing again. My long break from singing is over, and I am singing. Singing in a choir, something I have not done for ages. (and yes, we are doing the Rutter above, but with organ and brass, not full orchestra)

I guess this is where I take you all back to understand a few things. I have sung for many years. I used to be quite decent. I sang solo roles for various companies around Sydney, and Perth before that. Probably more than twenty productions easily.  I've sung in operas, musicals and a couple of oratorios, I have sung solo pieces in concert and chorus on stage. I've sung at nursing homes, bringing cheer to the patients. But, I found it all becoming a trial. Partly because trying to juggle a full time job and regular rehearsals with others, plus finding time to practise yourself, and then, find time to work on things with a teacher too. Trying to also find time to have a life outside of that? Yeah, it becomes a challenge.

So, eventually, I found myself resenting the time I was taking to do things, yet never having the time to get good enough to make a career out of it. I was also finding myself singing things that I, quire frankly, was not enjoying, simply because the group I was involved with was doing them. Singing when you heart is not in it is a truly soul destroying thing, let me tell you.

So, after a strong recommendation from my teacher of the time, I chose to stop. Stop singing, stop performing, stop practicing, and basically focus on work, and generally, having a life.

And that has mostly been a good thing. Music has remained a part of my life all that time since, but, not as an active performer. Now, about five years later I have started again. Just a toe, shall we say.

It partly came about because it is convenient. The choir I sing with rehearses less than a ten minute walk from home. Singing in a choir is also much less time intensive. With just going to the rehearsals, I am almost on top of what I need to do for the pieces we are singing (I have a couple of awkward spots to fix in the commissioned piece we are doing) And I am once again enjoying it. Yes, I am enjoying making music with others, something I had long lost the thrill of doing.

So, if you want to hear the results, feel free to come along (and say hi!) The details are here and you can buy tickets from that link too. Also, I can vouch that the music is enjoyable too. The newly commissioned piece by Dan Walker is full of surprising rhythms and also is not "challenging" in that scary new music way. Not to say that it is not challenging to us as singers, but it is certainly not a piece that will make you get up and walk out in horror. But, it will reward repeat listening, in the future.

And, think about what you have given up because you have lost the love of it.  Is there something you need to look at again, and start trying again, to see if your love is refound? Its worth examining.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The great last minute soprano strikes again

So, second opera in two days, and I am very glad I got them the right way around. Because frankly, Rigoletto, as good as it was, would have seemed very dull after Otello. Not only was the production far and away better thought through (well, it was Harry Kupfer who staged it so, yeah) the singers were all amazing, and in roles that showed them off. It is also, to be frank, more satisfying musically. There are times when Rigoletto seems trite, and the orchestral writing frankly pedestrian. There is nothing pedestrian about Otello. This is Verdi at his most potent. An opera written towards the end of his life, that he spent years on, unlike some of his earlier operas rushed out in six months, utilising all his melodic and dramatic skills to present the essence of this Shakespearean tale of jealousy, deliberate lies and murder.

So, aided by much better conducting in the hands of Christian Badea, the score came alive in the telling. He drew strong, unified performances from the orchestra and the cast, even if the thunder and lightning sound effects of the opening were overdone. The rest was a model of clarity and focus.

As Otello, the Wagnerian Simon O’Neill certainly sang brilliantly, and was a fearless stage presence. Possibly not the voice you would expect for Otello, being a much brighter, higher tone than usual, he none the less was a powerful figure striding the stage, and never came close to showing signs of strain, despite the length and demands of the role. He also showed few signs of effort from negotiating the tall set (basically a huge set of stairs, that were angled off kilter), I know I would have been worn out just from travelling his route over the stage, let alone expecting me to sing!

As Iago, in many ways the heart of this piece, we had the (new to me) Italian baritone Claudio Sgura singing a role he clearly relished. A tall physically intimidating presence, he suits a big villain role. In this production, I was surprised his size was not used more to advantage, but, then again, he was not the original Iago in this production. However, he is definitely a singer I want to hear more of. A big bright sound, with plenty of snarl and malevolence to suit all those big bad villain roles.

As Cassio, we had James Egglestone, singing brilliantly. Considering the last time I heard him I was underwhelmed, I was very pleased to hear him singing well and producing such a large sound. It suggests that he was cast in the role before he was ready for it, in the last production I saw him in.

The other Australian who really impressed was Pelham Andrews as the Lodovico, the Venetian who arrives to announce the replacement for Otello. A big bass voice that sounds positively cavernous, it was positively luxury casting in such a small role. Yet, he is young, and this is exactly the sort of role he needs, as he grows as a performer, big enough to develop a character, while not pushing him into the roles he will be singing in ten years as his voice hits maturity. I look forward to watching him develop in the future.

But, ultimately, for so many reasons, this production was about the Desdemona. After all, this was the production that the (name withheld deliberately) Georgian soprano was pushed out of, owing to the outcry about her past statements regarding a gay pride event. And, to be fair, if she had sung in this performance, I would not have been there, simply because I would have saved my money for other events.

Instead, in a huge coup for Sydney audiences, we had the Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, a singer I had heard amazing things of previously, from friends in London, and seen on film. I can safely say, the descriptions were not exaggerated. She brought a big beautiful voice to the role, and a sympathetic stage presence. There was no hard or harsh sounds to be heard and lots of very beautiful ones. In this role, she totally lived up to the hype, and made us care for her fate. Her final scene with her big solo aria, was the equal of many big name sopranos we know only from recordings, and this was live, taking place in front of us. And it was good, and intense. It made me care for her future, despite knowing she was doomed. It was exactly the sort of thing we go to operas to hear. And you cannot ask for more than that.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Emma & Giorgio Show redux

So, a new Rigoletto production. Which aims to take it back to sixteenth century Mantua of the setting, rather than the La dolce vita of Opera Australia’s venerable production it replaced, or the Las Vegas of The Met production or… Well, let’s be honest, these days, setting Rigoletto in the correct location, in the depicted period, is something of a novelty these days. Does it work still, in our days of demanding a visual feast of excitement and new interpretations? Or is it too, just another gimmick to appeal to our jaded tastes?

Well, first of all, the source material is very strong. Some of Verdi’s best known tunes, La donna é mobile (aka the Leggos ad music), Caro nome, Questa o quella, the quartet at the end, in a dramatic tale. These are all works of genius tossed throughout the opera, working as stand alone pieces, yet taking on an amazing strength when staged well. And, mostly, it is. This is a stripped back to the roots production, with a focus on the performers, not one where your eye is drawn left right and centre distractedly.

And what performances. Reuniting the Lucia cast of two years ago was the principal reason I wanted to see this production, and this cast. And, I was not disappointed. Giorgio Caoduro and Emma Matthews are one of those pairings that we dream of. With huge respect and love for each other, they also are both amazing singers, setting a high standard for all of their colleagues to follow. it is easy to believe in them as father and daughter, despite their ages suggesting nearly the opposite.

Emma brings her beautiful, flexible, silvery tone and intelligence to this role. Her Caro nome is every bit as gorgeous as expected, as well as an aria she lives. She takes the idea of teenage emotional excess and runs with it, at the same time, remaining curiously naive. By the time this is finished, we have no doubt that this girl is both deeply infatuated with the bad boy tenor, but has no experience of life. This is the big first love of her life, and she has no idea of what that means.

As her father, Caoduro was better than I hoped. He brought both the fearless mocker of all, as well as the loving father, and made them connected. His singing continues to impress, bringing a clear ringing sound of considerable beauty and power to the role. If at times, it seemed not as rich as expected in this role, it was only in the quieter moments, when some extra strength seemed needed. But, he is a very young Rigoletto and with age, he will prove to be an astonishing one. At the moment, vocally, he is merely very good. I only hope I get to hear him sing this again, in ten years time, when his voice has grown in richness.

Our Duke was Gianluca Terranova, bringing a reliable Italianate sound to the role. His is not the voice of a Pavarotti or other starry tenor, but he is a capable singer, and relished the chance to sing such glorious music. If it was not a performance of great depth, part of me feels that was partly a matter of direction, and partly a matter of performing approach. It felt more a colour by numbers performance, lacking the intensity of the other two leads. That said, in some ways, his job is to be a cypher, a character that does not have a significant emotional range or journey, rather someone who causes them in others.

The Sparafucile of David Parkin continues to impress. His voice continues to improve and his stage presence shows how far he has come from his days of Operatunity, even if he is again singing the first role he sang for Opera Australia, not that many years ago.

Indeed, it has to be said, a big pleasure of this production is that there was no one on stage who sang badly. Every solo role was heard clearly, in pitch and in character. Even Lisa Cooper, who had stepped in to replace the usual (indisposed) Page was clear and assured.

If there was any disappointment, it would have to be in the fact that after opening for the rowdy first scene, the two revolves that the set was built on failed to work. The change to scene 2 where Sparafucile and Rigoletto meet was delayed by more than ten minutes, while the gremlins were dealt with. it was a curiously disappointing note on an other wise highly impressive evening. It also made me think back to the last Rossini opera I saw, where the single revolve for that set refused to work at all, causing some on the night restaging. Does OperaAustralia have a backstage maintenance problem?

But, to be fair, fifteen minutes of waiting for a fix was a small price to pay, when for everything else, the opera gods were smiling.