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.

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.