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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Can we talk about Tatyana instead?

So, Eugene Onegin, that glorious lush Russian opera full of dance music and angst and love and death. It also starred a great cast singing beautifully and acting up a storm...

And yet, I was not happy. Mainly because the production of Kaspar Holten worked against the story, adding extra elements that worked against the story, to create the idea that the story was all about the memories we carry, not that it was just the sad tale of young lovers who make bad choices, then live to regret them.

It is also fair to say, that when he planned the production for the Royal Opera (it is a co production with Covent Garden and Teatro Reggio, Turino), that he expected much older leads, which could make the young lovers/old lovers thing work, but when you have a singer in the (old) role who is probably the same age as the young dancer doubling her, it becomes both confusing and distracting. "Is that Young Tatyana, or is it Old? Oh, she is singing, its the Old one." is the sort of thing that would go through the heads of the audience, assuming of course they had read the information beforehand, and knew this was happening, and did not just think there was a mute sister who danced (at one point I was asked "Is she meant to be miscarrying?", which would make for a very different Letter Scene!!!)

Also, it took a while, but eventually, I got the point of why everything got left on stage and never cleared, the books, the letters, the tree, the snow, dead Lensky, the broken chair, etc. It was to highlight that these people are carrying their history with them, as surely as if it was packed in a backpack and permanently attached to their backs. Well, we get that, it is constantly reinforced in the story and in the music; that the awkward mistakes that these characters make and must live with, are what has caused the traumatic ending for them. Doomed to love each other, but unable to do anything about it, because of the decisions they made in the past, that lead to this point.

But, we do not need to have that drummed into us, it is there in the story and the words, and the music, for all to see. Leaving all these reminders is just awkward, and does not help the story. Having Tatyana come close to falling on dead Lenksy is not going to make things believable, nor is she catching her dress on the branch left behind, as she tries to turn and walk angrily away from Onegin while inside her palace!

So, yes, there was lots about this performance that I did not like.  And most of those related to the work of Kaspar Holten, whose work I have seen before on DVD and found awkward. On the other hand, there was also much to admire. There were no weak performers in the cast, and lots to admire. I have to say, most of that flowed from the high musical standards, held together with precision and fire by Guillaume Tournaire. This is the second time I have attended OperaAustralia this year, and the second time I have found myself in awe of their musical standard.

First of all, if this is not the role that marks Nicole Car as a star, then, I would be curious what would. She inhabits this role as if born to it. Her sweet lyrical voice rose to the occasion beautifully, never feeling underpowered, and sounding every bit the dreamy, yet innocent girl who she portrayed. Considering her age, I was surprised to hear she was cast in this, but having heard her, I could not imagine another local singer come even close to her in this role.

As her would be suitor Onegin, we had the Slovak Baritone Dalibor Jenis in his first season here. He sounds strong and powerful, but I found his soft notes a bit off. An off night? Problems with Russian? I can't say, but it affected the way I viewed his performance. I thought he seemed to be portraying Onegin as a heartless bully and very abrupt, until I realised, it was actually his voice I was reacting to, not his acting. Once I realised that, I could see a much more nuanced performance, just one with a vocal challenge.

As Tatyana's sister, we had Sian Pendry, released from the realms of pants roles, and freed to play a very girly girl, one not yet ready to settle down with the ardent Lensky, and more than eager to flirt back with Onegin, setting up the duel that is in many ways the centre of the piece. Her early scenes with Tatyana showed beautifully matched voices, setting the tone for the opera well.

As Lensky, James Egglestone was ardent and hot headed as we expect. His argument with Onegin at the party was quite physical, and believable. His voice is a bit darker than expected in this role, and his Kuda kuda, was beautifully sung, but not quite the meltingly lovely tone that we hope for in this role. The fact that he then got killed at the front of the stage and remained there till the end of the opera, deserves special praise for being dead so effectively, though why it was thought needed is another question.

Also worthy of mention were the glorious cameo arias of both Kaneen Breen as Triquet (hilarious) and Konstantin Gorny as Prince Gremin, bringing a cultured authority to his part, though why he had to appear briefly to witness the big scene between Onegin and Tatyana was beyond me. It was not needed, and just drew focus away from the fine anguished and passionate performances we were riveted by.

So, to sum up, this is not an Onegin to go see if you do not know the story. This is also not a production to see if you get annoyed by directors who play with stories to suit their pet ideas. I admit, I left both annoyed by what I had seen, yet blown over by the performances.

However, it is a production to go hear if you love this music. That was very well served by all, and has been haunting me for days since. I can think of no better praise for a performer, than that they served the music as well as this cast.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

As they say, murder your mother for a ticket....

Right, so, Elektra by Richard Strauss, an opera I have never really got. Sung in a semi staged concert with the Sydney Symphony, and with the Sydney Dance Co providing additional stuff. Yeah, totally not what I would want to see. Except, it had The Goerkinator singing. My opera friends in the UK had all been raving about her performances last year at Covent Garden in this same role, and it seems safe to assume, that this is probably the only chance I would get to hear her live in person.

So, with quite some trepidation, we went, only paying for choir stalls seats, which means we rarely saw the singers faces as they sang facing away from us. Yet, I was still fairly certain I would hear every note from Elektra.

So, basically, I can now say I have heard Elektra live. Sung by the only person I can think of, who actually can sing all the notes, and be heard over that huge orchestra, without resorting to shouting, shrieking, or any other ugliness you care to think of. In short, Christine Goerke is a force of nature with a voice that does not demand to be heard, it gives you no choice, YOU WILL HEAR THIS VOICE! That she can do that over an enlarged Sydney Symphony, unamplified, with her back to us, probably says it all.

To be fair, it is hard to describe performances of an opera that you do not like, without sounding like a prick. I still do not like Elektra, but after this performance, I do get a sense of why people might. But, for me, it is still an opera I can't get past the unlikeable characters, to be moved by their plight. We are not talking music that makes you want to like it, but rather music that reflects the inner turmoil of the characters. It is impressive, but ultimately, if I do not hear it again, I won't be upset.

So, to the singers, really all I need to say is Christine Goerke rocks. She makes this madness musical, she lives those notes, sings them through that orchestra, and does it with ease. Her command of this part, suggests that it was written with her voice in mind. It wasn't, but it might as well have been.

As her mother Klytemnestra, we have a former Elektra in the form of Lisa Gasteen. Like Ms Goerke, she too has power to burn and claimed this part as hers. She made the scary mother, if not likeable, at least believable, with her fears, and her determination to kill and kill again, until she finds peace from the dreams that are slowly driving her mad. The dreams that stem from her killing her husband. Her voice is not as large as Ms Goerke's, and when you think she was one of the go to Brünnhildes of the recent past, you might begin to understand my comments on vocal size. But, she also sang her role in a way that left you understanding these roles can be sung, and not shouted. How rare to hear this, and how wonderful!

As Chrysothemis, Cheryl Barker was also impressive. I was much more impressed with this than some of her other Strauss roles, making me wonder if it is more the length of some of these roles that makes her hold back. In this smaller role, she was vocally fearless, in a way that she was not in say Capriccio a couple of years ago. She threw herself in vocally, and sang out with far more power than we often see from her, making me wish she did it more often.

As Orestes, I was less impressed with Peter Coleman-Wright. To be sure, I rarely like his voice, and this night was no exception. His voice sounded tired, leaving me wish for pretty much any other large baritone in the role. He really was the one weak link I noticed in an evening of very high musical standards.

I also have to say, that all the servants and other minor roles were sung superbly. The fact that most of them are not singing for Opera Australia is quite surprising. I have heard leads in large roles who were less impressive than some of the maids. Or the male servants for that matter (though, only one of them has not sung for them, and Pascal Herrington has just finished his stint at the Conservatorium!)

I also must mention the dancers of the Sydney Dance Company who were a frequent recurrence throughout the evening. While they were decorative, I have to wonder were they really adding to the presentation? Or were they distracting? I tend to feel the later, but, admittedly, I was watching from the back, so they were between the singers and me. They felt too much like an added touch, as if someone suggested it, but no one really thought through the why, just "this seems a good idea" I just found them distracting, not enhancing the action.

On the other hand, definitely enhancing the action was the conductor David Robertson. He has the Symphony sounding amazing, and responding to his every command. I think this may also be the first vocal concert where I heard no brass fluffed notes at all, which certain of my readers will be thrilled to hear!

So, to sum up. This was a concert to go to, to hear some extraordinary voices, sing music that I do not like. That I walked away amazed and thrilled probably says it all.

Christine singing Fidelio.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Il Turco in Italia (Or, gosh, a sex farce, Rossini style)

So, yes, Rossini and sex romps, not exactly what you think of together. Well, not until you get to know the plots of most of his comic operas. Then, yes, its all about who gets it, who doesn't, who is chasing it, and who ends up winning in the end.

And, then you need the sort of cast, who can not only throw of the vocal high jinks with ease (as shown above), but also carry off the sort of staging that makes the crazy stories work. In Turk, we basically have a bedroom farce, revolving around the young Fiorilla, busy sleeping her way through the town, her husband, her lover, the Turk of the title who arrives to stir the plot, and a young gypsy, who of course, turns out to be the Turk's long lost love. Throw in the playwright who is busy recording the goings on to make his first great play, add a chorus and cook till light, frothy, effervescent, and serve with a chilled bubbly, probably prosecco, considering the music (ably held together by Andrea Molina from the pit). That is basically all you need to know.

So, like most of Rossini's operas, there is always a star role that the whole opera revolves around. In this case, it is Fiorilla, the girl who is open all hours and seemingly to all comers. How she came to marry Geronio is anyone's guess, but it is your typical young excited vixen/old crotchety fool type couple that is the stuff of these plots. Needless to say, Emma Matthews takes the challenges of Fiorella's music, throws those notes off against the back wall of the theatre, and vamps her way up, basically having a great time doing it; relishing the chance not to play the tragic heroine, but rather showing off her great comic skills as well as her sizzling coloratura. It is the first time I have seen her play comic in a long time (I think the last I saw live was back in the 80's as Cupid in Orphee aux enfers) but, just like in Lucia, she remains the one character your eyes are constantly drawn to on stage, as she turns the vamp level up to 11.

As her husband, the mislead fool, Conal Coad gives us more of what we expect. This role could have been written with him in mind. His fearless portrayals of comic roles are legendary, and here, he is once again in his element. If at times his coloratura was not as clear as it could have been, who cares? He clearly relishes being the butt of jokes and can teach a thing or two to many performers about singing loudly, even when motorboating Fiorilla.

As the Turk, Poalo Bordogna had fun with pretty much every stereotype of Turks you can think of. It is not exactly a subtle comedy, but getting to play the exotic playboy with two girls at your beck and call is probably most baritones' dream. He had fun doing it. He even does a mean Elvis hip swivel as required by the staging. If his voice was not as good as some of the others, he clearly had no problem negotiating the challenging vocal lines. Though, lacking the beauty of some of the other voices on display, he left me wishing for Jose Carbo at times, who would have been just as funny, with a beautiful flexible voice to match the others. Not that I did not like him, I just wished for a nicer sound, and when you know an Australian could do it better....

As Narciso the lover, Luciano Botelho was hilarious and sang with a darker tone than we sometimes get from Rossini tenors. However, he had no problems negotiating the vocal writing, even while changing on stage (twice) and dealing with a range of sight gag props (anyone who can sing clearly and beautifully, while wearing goggles, swimming flippers and carrying an inflatable mattress deserves some sort of award).

Also impressive was the Prosdocimo of Samuel Dundas, the playwright to be, whose frequent asides to the audience were as much to elaborate the action, as to explain his future play.  He almost worked as Greek chorus at times, but never had to drop character, indicating many great characterisations ahead of him. If his singing got lost in some of the ensembles, that was unsurprising. A young baritone singing Rossini is always a big ask...

And, of course, mention must be made of Anna Dowsley making her mainstage debut for OperaAustralia as Zaida, the gypsy/lover of the Turk. Maybe she was not as secure in her comedy as some of the other performers, but her voice was clear and very well produced. This was a very promising debut for a voice that had no problems in filling the theatre. And one I look forward to hearing more of in the future.

I suppose I should mention that the staging was updated to the 1950's - resulting in fabulous loud colours and dresses that flatter curves (always a good thing for opera!) While the set looked fabulous, like some 50s diner designed by a cubist, the revolve that was a feature (and intended to speed the scene changes) failed to revolve, resulting in a very late start as they tried to fix it. However, with Prosdocimo acting as the barman taking on extra duties of removing tables and chairs as needed, it was not missed much. A couple of times things suffered slightly, but it did not affect the story telling significantly. It still flowed smoothly from one scene to another, things just may have happened in earshot of characters that were not supposed to hear them. Which is nothing new for opera, of course! It also meant a lot more people had to leave via a small space into the wings, than was probably planned.

I should also make special mention of the surtitles that the director Simon Phillips prepared. They were a treat in themselves, filled with all sorts of unexpected slang, clearly aimed at Australians. Referring to the Turk as a doner kebab was a good example of what I mean.

So, all in all, this is definitely a great night out. It is not serious, nor does it make any pretense to offer any deeper meanings. But it does offer some truly amazing singing, and lots of belly laughs, especially in the second act. I had thought based on the cast, that this was going to be one of the must sees for this year's opera season. Having seen it, I have no hesitation in saying that now. Go, laugh, and live life loud.

I shall leave you with our heroine, singing something different, but equally vocally challenging.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 highlights and low lights

To start this summary of what I saw this year, I have to start with the statement, that I did not see all I wanted to see, not even locally. I mostly chose to see things that I felt I had to see, not things I wanted to see, given the chance. Thus, no Ballo at Opera Australia, and no Melbourne Ring either, since, it had initially been declared sold out. When I heard there was tickets available, it was too late for me to organise to go.

But, I also got to see some unexpected treats, in part due to some generous friends. Both the Carmen on the Harbour and the Verdi Requiem I saw via free tickets, and both I enjoyed immensely, even if they were not my peak highlights.

But, having said that, my first highlight of the year came in April, courtesy of a Met in HD production. I think it is fair to say that pretty much anyone that went to that Parsifal came away moved/stunned/shocked/wowed. What it was like live I can only imagine (I got lots of reports of "amazing" from people who went), but it burst forth on screen with an intensity often missed. I suspect the DVD of this production, will quickly become regarded as the one to judge others by. Both impressive musically and visually, it allowed the story to be told true to text, while modernising it in a way that made it more meaningful, not less. It was both traditional and modern, an exercise in direction that many opera directors would do well to watch and learn from, in my opinion.

The next highlight was finally hearing Bryn Terfel in concert. Not because he was in fine vocal form, or because he is one of the best singers around. But, rather, because he is that rare thing, the consummate showman in classical music. His performing will always be interesting, no matter how he is sounding, simply because he comes across as generous friend who wants you to like his singing, and who is a nice guy. I found his voice definitely showing wear and tear that night, but his performance was still entertaining and frankly, compelling. As I said at the time, maybe not the voice I wanted on recordings of the repertoire, but as a live experience, hard to beat.

Then, the next highlight was hearing Stuart Skelton in concert with the Philharmonia proving what an amazing singer he is. Seriously, I fail to understand why he is not better known, this is a singer who you need to go hear, any time you have the chance. And why his Lohengrin (or his Parsifal, for that matter) are not available on video, is one of the modern mysteries of opera (or at least, the recording industry)

I also got the chance to hear Eric Owens sing The Flying Dutchman, in a concert with the Sydney Symphony, and Orla Boylan and Ain Anger. Let's just say that they are all singers who if you do not know, you should. All singing roles that suit them, in concert with the forces that this opera begs for. If you have not heard a big chorus sing this, you have not heard it! This was far and away my highlight for concert of the year.

I have two choices for the best staged live opera I saw. I can't quite decide which was better. Both were well performed, in clever stagings that brought the stories to life. Both used minimal sets, focussing more on the performers to bring things to life. The stunning production of La forza del destino by Opera Australia was a dramatic and a vocal triumph for them. With a great cast, all singing amazingly, in  a production with no weak link (except the overlong music, Verdi really needed to cut some things out) This was a production where you really did feel their anguish and despair at what has happened.

But, I also can't go past the Sydney Chamber Opera production of Owen Wingrave, where on the smell of an oily rag, they produced riveting theatre that was more real than anything I have seen on stage. The cast were all impressive, but the stunning performance of Morgan Pearse in the title role was one of the best performances I have seen in person on stage. Even in an opera I had never heard before, which, to be honest, is not the easiest music to like on first listen, he held the audience in the palm of his hand the whole time, and his death at the end produced audible gasps of horror in the audience. You cannot get more vivid performances than that!

Sydney Chamber Opera - Owen Wingrave from Hospital Hill on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Grease, its still the word

Yeah, how many of us don't know this, right? If you are anywhere close to my age, you probably saw it when it first came out in the cinema, or, at the drives, then when it came out on TV, then on VHS, then.... Well, you get the picture. Its a staple, everyone knows the story. Cute boy and cute girl try to overcome their differences in background to make a success of things in high school in California in the 50s. Its a story that many writers did, many times, with varying levels of success. Why has Grease worked so well? And why is it being run as a stage show on tour in Australia, for about the fifth time here?

Well, that clip from the movie goes a long way to explaining it. Fun songs, cute, likeable leads, bucketloads of energy, and, let's be honest, a lot of humour as we relive our youth, with enough commonality that we can all put ourselves into those roles we see on stage. It is close to being an urtext of the high school musical genre, if such a thing can be said. The movie was possibly the best expression of youth as we wanted it to be, rather than it ended up, that I can think of.

So, yes, any production of Grease on stage has a lot to live up to. Finding a group of performers who can sing and dance their way through the numbers and impersonate the leads from the movie close enough, and basically you have it made, right? Well, sort of. There is still a need to make it work as a cohesive whole, rather than a series of great production numbers with a story stuck onto it. Sadly, that is what it felt like at times. Sometimes it worked, and worked well. At other times, some scenes were like "get to the song already, so we can move on" which is never a good thing. I suspect some heavy editing of the book happened, or maybe just the director was not able to bring those scenes to life, but at times I felt like playing "spot what song goes here" before the song arrived. If I felt like that, something is wrong.

But, having said that, most of the singing was great. To be sure, who ever takes on the leads is going to forever be compared with the movie originals, and found wanting, but to be honest, most of the time that comparison was not happening. Rob Mills' Danny was filled with enough energy to carry him through, and, if Gretel Scarlett was not what we were expecting, well, frankly, who would be? The role is so indelibly associated with Olivia Newton John, that anyone has to be astonishing to make us not compare them. Needless to say, in her case, we got very good, not astonishing, so the comparisons were inevitable.

By far away the best of the main leads, though, was the Rizzo of Lucy Maunder. She owned that role, and filled it out with flesh and blood, in a way that the others couldn't. She also sang up a storm in her solo numbers, (Look at me I'm Sandra Dee and There are worse things I could do).  Also excellent was the Jan of Laura Murphy, who brought the "young one" to vivid life, in a way that many of the others failed.

Having said that, the Teen Angel of Todd McKenney was also hilarious, and fun, even if his singing was no where close to the best I have heard that his one song sung. He certainly got the audience in the palm of his hand, showing what is possible in a small part!

But, to be honest, though I enjoyed this show, it would not be a production I would go see again. Apart from the fact that I am more likely to go see an opera than a musical, this was, while well sung, and (mostly) well danced, it lacked something to my mind. Most people would laugh at me for this, considering the fact we are talking about a very commercial musical, but I left feeling the show was lifeless, or soulless. It was all well done, but it had no reason to be done, other than just entertaining. Themes that were there were played down, and we were left with a show that was less than the sum of its parts, rather than more. Which is a shame, because there was things that I did enjoy about it, but ultimately, I was wanting more.

Oh, and yes, before you ask, I did not pay to go. It was our work Christmas party, paid for by my boss.

So, instead, I will leave you with Olivia showing why no one else even comes close with this role.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Nose, or Shostakovich giving the Soviet system the finger

The Nose is really one of those pieces that defies description. Its manic and fun and full of invention, both a trifle about nothing, that also at the same time, makes it clear that beyond the absurd tale, there is indeed deeper ideas afoot. Not that they all appear in one quick sitting, but complexities certainly there are.

To start with, I have to say, this is one of the busiest productions I have ever seen. The height of the Met Opera theatre stage is taken advantage of in many ways. William Kentridge's staging from the outset does not attempt to treat this story naturalistically, with  scenic elements that only appear as they are needed. Kovalyov's bedroom, the barber's room, the pressroom, the police station. They were all suggested, rather than depicted fully, and always skewed, or indeed, bent as if in a surrealist painting. But, that added to the sense of a world gone mad, helping this seemingly light fancy on its way, inviting the watcher to pick up other thoughts thrown out along the way.

But, yet, everything about the plot happened, there was no attempt to ignore the story, rather the non realistic sets made the characters more real, helped the performers build a sense of other, that worked in this mess of a morality tale gone awry. Yet, tho messy, there was clearly a firm hand on the direction. Everything linked back to the central story and fed from it. Constant projections onto walls showed the passage of the Nose as it travelled around while free, or words from what was sung, or pieces of text that gave the sense of newspaper reports, the breathless sort that the tale would generate.

So, to the singers. First of all, dominating over the whole plot, the man with no nose, Kovalyov, was played by Paulo Szot, in what should be a career defining performance, if he was not already well known for being the Emille that made South Pacific popular again a few years ago.   Here, he shows himself far more than the good looking French seducer (indeed, it is hard to imagine a less likely role to follow Emille Debecque with than this one, while staying in fach) Truly, this is one of those roles that dominates everything else. He brought us a vision of a man totally lost in his world, with his circumstances turned upside down, and did it convincingly, while singing beautifully. In honesty, his was the only performance that really mattered, it all stood or fell on his shoulders. Needless to say, it stood up, and tap danced!!

Not to say that no other performance was good, far from it. But, after Kovalyov, you then have His Servant Ivan, the Police constable, the barber and the Podtochina's, with the rest all being cameo roles who appear for one scene, then disappear into the crazy ensemble. Really, no performer stood out, as bad or good, tho for sheer madness, the pretzel seller will remain in memory, as a good example of how to make a crazy outfit work.

But ultimately, this production is all Paulo's, (and the directors) I will leave you with some of his work from it. Feel free to click on the link below if you want to see who else featured (all were good btw)

Full cast list from the Met Archives