Friday, May 18, 2018

Seattle Opera's inventively re-interpreted and gorgeously sung Aida

Verdi’s grand opera, Aida, is so inextricably linked to its ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom setting of towering pharaonic statues and monolithic stone architecture that it takes a strong argument to convince an audience, many of whom will be opera first-timers, that any such departure in time is justifiable. A new co-production from Seattle Opera, having come via San Francisco, Washington National and Minnesota Operas, takes a more contemporary view, inventively re-interpreted by prolific American opera director Francesca Zambello.

Leah Crocetto as Aida and Brian Jagde as Radamès
Here, the Old Kingdom is stripped away and replaced, it appears, by a highly stylised pseudo-1970s context, judging by costume designer Anita Yavich’s colourfully printed kaftans. Or was it WWII-era inspired judging by the handsome military uniforms. Then, there is graffiti artist and artistic designer (born as Marquis Duriel Lewis) RETNA’s bold use of sharply stylised graphic hieroglyphics that etch their exoticism upon the work and which are superbly integrated with Michael Yeargan’s capacious and rigorously symmetrical sets. 

The many and varied stage pictures are striking. From Act 1’s opening cavernous concrete bunker and long trestle table - around which an army of military officers mill about planning war strategies - to the high-screened enclosure and gateway flanked by spectator stands and thrones either side for the grand triumphal march of Act 2 and the final airless tomb that robs Aida and Radamès of life in Act 4, Zambello’s fluidly moving scene changes capture moments both grand and intimate. For this, Mark McCullough’s lighting lends an evocative hand throughout to which revival director E. Loren Meeker, in her Seattle debut, comfortably balances effective detail with vocal delivery.

Leah Crocetto as Aida and cast members of Seattle Opera
As impressive and memorable as it is, a disquieting sense of flux in time and place permeates the work and occasionally distracted the imagination. For a time, in Act 3’s opening scene on the banks of the Nile as prayers are chanted - here the Seattle Opera Chorus shone at their best - it even looked more like Princess Turandot’s China presided as a giant full moon hung low, a processional background of priestesses glided from right to left and a large screen took more the appearance of Chinese characters. But it was inconsistency of style in the choreographed dances that was the biggest detraction, beautiful at times in its streamlined execution, floundering at others in its tweeness. Was I the only one not able to expel from mind an image of The Sound of Music’s Von Trapp family more than once, starting with the cute troupe of boy soldiers that brought liveliness to Amneris’s veiled chamber? In the end, it felt as if other elements that could have dominated - namely the tensions that religious and political rule had created - were compromised.

That’s not to say that the production lacked ongoing dramatic punch, aided by an excellent cast and conductor John Fiore’s command in expressing the tender, triumphant, solemnity and tension of the score with warmth, pliancy and exhilaration. At his service, musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra played with over-all quality to admire.

Brian Jagde as Radamès
Taking the story off to a rock-solid beginning, mammoth-voiced and deep, rumbling bass Daniel Sumegi gave a brilliant, threatening performance as the high priest Ramfis and single-handedly brought out the heavy-handedness of religious authority that I’d hoped to see taken up in greater force around him. Sturdy bass Clayton Brainerd stood authoritatively yet warily in political counterpoint as the King of Egypt and burly bass Gordon Hawkins (alternating in the role with Alfred Walker) brought an imposing voice to Aida’s father Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, despite looking like an imprisoned janitor in his undignified uniformed greens. In the smaller role of the High Priestess, Marcy Stonikas, without exaggeration, simply touched the senses with her divinely plush soprano. 

But it is the circumstantially fraught love triangle that constitutes the story’s meaty heart where the most tension and complex emotional turns reside. Brian Jagde‘s huge octane-rich tenor fired away from the word go and was put to marvellous use in portraying a highly fervent and eventually punished Radamès. Diction-perfect and phrased with purpose, Jagde (alternating in the role with David Pomeroy) effortlessly made belief of Radamès’ love for Aida and unsavoury road of dishonour. 

Deep, dark and plummy mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic capably steered her portrayal of the King’s daughter Amneris from evil-edged haughtiness to momentary sincerity then maniacal vengeance as her love for Radamès goes unrequited. Nikolic (alternating in the role with Elena Gabouri) had a tendency to lose resonance in the lowest range of the voice but she gave one of the evening’s many highlights in a riveting scene as Amneris curses the priests in Act 3’s hall of the Temple of Justice and tugs at a web of wide drapery as Radamès is sentenced to death. 

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris
Most remarkable, however, was the superbly refined vocal beauty and emotionally compelling performance by luminous soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role as the captured Ethiopian princess, Aida. In love with Radamès, in Crocetto, a sweet sense of purity and courage bonded on a voice in which the high notes were taken to elegantly sustained length, vocal shading impeccably realised and register shifts as smooth as butter. Crocetto, who alternates in the role with Alexandra Lobianco, easily garnered her audience’s sympathy, poignantly encapsulating the aguish Aida sings in “Qui Radamès verra .. O patria mia” (“Oh, my dear country!") and never seemed to tire until her last breath when, entombed, she expires in the arms of Radamès.

Balancing well the spectacular and intimate, there’s much that impresses in Zambello’s Aida. It’s gorgeously sung too and, despite thoughts that more could be achieved in painting its historically updated background and rethinking much of the choreography, this fresh perspective on Egypt’s Old Kingdom allows the plot’s central conflict to fester splendidly.

Seattle Opera 
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at Seattle Center
Until 19th May 2018

Production Photos: Philip Newton

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Brilliantly sung but the tale of Don Quichotte mostly lumbers in Melbourne's Opera Australia production: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 7th May and in print 10th May, 2018.

Massenet’s loosely adapted interpretation of Cervantes’ sprawling epic, Don Quixote, is no standard repertoire work. Not only has the choice of bringing San Diego Opera’s 2009 production served Opera Australia’s purpose adequately in mounting it for first time, but wisely importing acclaimed Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto with it to infuse driver-seat authority as the eponymous knight-errant proved highly worthy.

Scene from Act I, Opera Don Quichotte, Opera Australia
To a libretto based on a play by Jacques Le Lorrain, the story centres on Don Quichotte’s heroic deed to retrieve village beauty Dulcinea’s stolen necklace — he blindly convinced she loves him — and win her in marriage.

On show was Furlanetto’s outstanding nutrient-rich vocal earthiness and authentic portrayal of an ageing man’s adventure, clad in tarnished armour and mocked while trumpeting chivalric virtue. For this, Furlanetto conveyed the pathos and oft-ambiguous delineation between the delusional and Christlike with touching sensibility.

At his side, the impressive trusty expertise of baritone Warwick Fyfe complimented Furlanetto brilliantly as the comically endearing Sancho. You get the sense that Sancho‘s music is the more stirring and Fyfe gave it immense idiosyncratic weight the further the piteousness of Don Quichotte’s dying end neared.

Mellifluous mezzosoprano Sian Pendry wafted through Dulcinea’s early flippant, later nonchalance then regretful tenderness with assured step. Her four fawning suitors add little to the plot though fervent tenor John Longmuir stood out as the valorous Juan.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte and Warwick Fyfe as Sancho
But once the burst of music and exuberantly choreographed Act 1 celebratory Spanish dance was done, the puff momentarily ran out. Even the theatrical stunner created for Act 2’s dreamy windmill scene lumbered in dramatic purpose.

More the fault of the narrative’s lack of dramatic thickening than revival director John Sheedy’s period-sympathetic approach, not until the final two acts of its rather short five do the characters galvanise with each other convincingly to match Massenet’s tremendously beautiful music, divinely crafted in rich sound-colour by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, Orchestra Victoria kept superb form, serving its various solo highlights hypnotically.

Ralph Funicello’s handsome set, Missy West’s rustic costumes and Marie Barrett’s evocative lighting are effective enough but to sit back and melt into the music alongside Furlanetto and Fyfe’s affecting connection are the few glorious comforts worth a ticket.

Don Quichotte
Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 12th May, 2018


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The fortuitous encounter with Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson in the title role of Verdi's Falstaff at Opera Colorado

Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera based on William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts I & II, owes much to librettist Arrigo Boito’s wonderfully structured and witty adaptation concerning the Bard’s “great whale of Windsor”, the big-bellied knight John Falstaff whose attempts to seduce two married women come to a mocking end. And layered with the composer’s swift, narrative-enriching music, the libretto’s inbuilt comic charms bristle with opportunity for directorial enlivenment. 

Andrew Hiers, Nathan Ward and Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff
In a new production that opened at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House closing Opera Colorado’s 2017-18 season on Saturday night - it’s been 30 years since the company first presented the work - director David Edwards, to his credit, succeeded well in capturing the speed and oddball realism of the piece while cleverly harmonising action with music.

In its simple and straightforward rustic setting, the comedy percolated through seamlessly. Stephen D. Mazzeno’s set design, featuring a large Tudor-esque two-dimensional wall with lead light windows and timber strapping, fills the stage and is neatly utilised for both interior and exterior settings with either the addition of a staircase (for Act 1’s Garter Inn and a room in Alice Ford’s house in Act 2) or potted hedged greenery (Act 1, Scene 2’s garden in front of Alice Ford’s house). Falstaff’s ditching in the Thames at Act 2’s end comes across rather clumsily on a sheath of blue cloth and, with just a silhouetted oak tree and low lying distant crenellations for Act 3’s Windsor Park, the overall concept relies on economy of means. It does the job with humble honesty - though without inspired sophistication - as do Clare Mitchell’s variety of fabric-laden village costumes and Lucas Krech’s mostly warm obedient lighting.

Edwards uses the space broadly and has the fortune of a spirited cast with strong acting chops at his disposal. Led by Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson’s adroitly caricatured vocal largesse and the paunchiness to go with it, Falstaff took larger than life form in Sigurdarson’s experienced grip. 

Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff and Cynthia Clayton as Alice Ford
He might be grubbily garbed in 16th century long coat and high-reaching pantaloons on first encounter (though he scrubs up rather dashingly in heavy brocade in preparation for his tryst with Alice), but Falstaff, in all sorts of physical manifestations, still has his match today. Sigurdarson entertainingly makes us laugh with him and at him. We can even sympathise with the thick-skinned Falstaff as he’s drowned in mockery and extols his girth and morally questionable virtues. 

And Sigurdarson always looked at ease in the title role’s weighty and complex demands, bringing a cheeky comic agility to an otherwise slovenly lump. And how the voice projected with resonant strength and bucolic depth as if supported by the great mass below. The use of text was superb and the expression to match made a gourmet performance. Then there was the fine falsetto to cap off his character’s own derisive comments. Here was a fully-studied and naturally drawn interpretation that has years of delight to give. 

Alongside Sigurdarson, some noteworthy voices shone. At the top of the list for unwavering consistency and interpretation, there was silken soprano Susannah Biller as the winsome ingénue Nannetta, hearty mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller as the nettlesome Dame Quickly and grainy, robust bass-baritone Andrew Hiers as Falstaff’s thieving double-crosser, Pistola. 

Cynthia Clayton, Susannah Biller Dana Beth Miller, Sandra Piques Eddy
With all their comic requirements, the quality work from other members of the large ensemble cast appeared compromised by an unawareness that, periodically, their voices weren’t carrying into the large 2000-plus seat theatre. Still, soprano Cynthia Clayton’s gorgeously projected top notes and spirited delivery as Meg Ford and lush mezzo-soprano as Meg Page enhanced the game of trickery in bubbly fashion to show Falstaff a lesson. Mingjie Lei’s soothing warm tenor provided the perfect romantic compliment to Nannetta and Marco Nisticò put in a distinguished performance as Alice’s husband, Ford. At one with slapstick delivery, Nathan Ward‘s light comically wiry tenor could have done with a little more flesh as Falstaff’s other cheating henchman, Bardolfo and Alex Mansoori made a bold early showing as Dr Caius. 

One of the performance highlights was the comic spark set off between Miller’s Dame Quickly and Sigurdarson’s Falstaff with voices matching so marvellously you might have wondered whether an amorous rendezvous would come too. The ladies’ front-of-stage lineup in Act 1, as they decide to punish Falstaff after Meg and Alice receive the same love letter, is a vibrantly sung and gesticulated affair but when the larger ensemble fronted, the quick-tempo demands invariably lost tightness and form. From below, conductor Ari Pelto kept the drama well lubricated, its three acts (including two intervals) moving tautly at a swift pace with the Opera Colorado Orchestra in overall good command.

Conceived without show-stopping and stand-and-deliver arias, Verdi’s Falstaff makes for a fortuitous encounter with Shakespeare’s rotund indelible character and, on that account with Sigurdarson in the picture, Opera Colorado have delivered in spades.

Opera Colorado 
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
Until 13th May, 2018

Production Photos: Matthew Staver

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Fabulous singing and full of laughs, Don Pasquale entertains in 50s Hollywood style at Fort Worth Opera

Burak Bilgili as Don Pasquale and Ji-Min Park as Ernesto
The comic madness that accompanies Donizetti’s effervescent score in his 1843 premiered Don Pasquale comes with a jolly good 1950s Hollywood update from director Chuck Hudson in a production from Arizona Opera that was first seen in 2014. It opened on Saturday night courtesy of Fort Worth Opera and, apart from the occasional over-the-top slapstick hijacking, it entertained marvellously. 

Hudson’s concept imaginatively incorporates the black and white celluloid world of the silent film era to identify Don Pasquale as “The Sovereign of the Silver Screen”. When the vibrant overture began, Hudson gave his audience black and white movie magic with Don Pasquale starring in the title role of his most celebrated film, “The Sheik of Arabia”, a hoot of a start using old footage and fake superimposed characters. More of those celluloid divertissements popped up later and kept up the fun act. 

But when the curtain goes up, Don Pasquale’s star has long faded and he’s living in his long-gone Oscar-winning glory surrounded by shelves of old movie reels in a home with a view to the Hollywood sign as part of Peter Nolle’s smart-looking designs, Kathleen Trott’s period-appropriate costumes and Eric Watkins’s crisp lighting. Interestingly, as the plot unfolds, Pasquale's world around him transitions from black and white to technicolor and with it the out-of-step geriatric appears sadly left behind.

Audrey Luna as Norina
If not for being acted out in such well-honed comic form and sung so thrillingly, Donizetti’s topsy-turvy work - with the moral that “The man who marries old is weak in the head” - would collapse. But, treated to the talents of four fine principals who connected with and complimented each other superbly, the story gets a generous dose of comic preposterousness, extreme as it sometimes becomes. 

The work’s melodious array of arias, duets, trios and quartets were showcased excellently, brimming with vitality and astute vocal balance. The precision between stage and pit lapsed occasionally in the prestissimo runs but conductor Joe Illick otherwise brought out the lovely lyrical aspects while guiding the well-supported sound of Fort Worth Symphony.

Richly fortified Turkish bass-baritone Burak Bilgili instantly set the antics alight as the spright and elderly, pallid and bespectacled Don Pasquale. Bilgili sang the Italian lines with zinging articulation and characterful expression, projected with a big throaty resonance and adeptly portrayed an old man deciding to take a young bride with self-entitled celebrity flair. But, despite his creepy and lecherous ways, there's an ounce of sympathy Bilgili makes you have for him.

Audrey Luna, Andrew Wilkowske and Burak Bilgili 
As Don Pasquale’s theatrically confident double-crossing friend and doctor, one who appears to have suppressed dreams of Hollywood stardom but nonetheless basks in his own suave good looks, buff and burnished baritone Andrew Wilkowske was an exuberant Malatesta. Wilkowske’s timing with the quick alternations between feigning assistance with Pasquale’s plans to marry and twists of deceit were always delivered with sharpness and polished finish. Together with Bilgili, the duo hammed it up big time, including punching out the ripper pitter-patter rhythms of Act 2’s “Cheti, cheti, immantinente” and a rollickingly mimed scene in Act 3, outside the Hollywood Bowl for some incongruous reason, as Malatesta unsuccessfully tries to get Pasquale’s elastic-attached keys. 

On this note, the downside was that poor Ernesto’s mostly offstage aria, “Com'è gentil”, was laughed all over but Korean tenor Ji-Min Park had already won his audience over with his youthful innocence and thrilling adrenaline-rich tenor. Doing so in the unequivocal opening night highlight with Act 2’s lament, “Cercherò lontana terra”, Park both movingly and humorously portrayed Ernesto’s despair in believing he was no use to his sweetheart Norina and powerfully embodied a yin and yang like inseparability of tragi-comedy as he made one failed suicide attempt after the other - a scene that came with the kind of subtlety and depth that parts of the performance missed.

Ji-Min Park and Audrey Luna with Fort Worth Opera Chorus
For the lone female soloist playing Norina, Donizetti ascribed tantalisingly elegant and filigreed music which much pleasure was had in hearing plush and creamy Italian soprano Audrey Luna give sparkle and pliancy to. Making a first appearance ‘on set’ in a bubble bath, Luna plays a stylish Hollywood starlet who Pasquale forbids his nephew Ernesto to marry - if so, Ernesto will lose his inheritance. Luna captivated with her gleam and purity of tone but then came the icing on the cake with her trills and ornamentations that danced athletically in step with her lithe foxiness and vivacious nature. When lured into Malatesta’s plot as his direct-from-the-convent virginal sister Sofronia, in order to trick Pasquale into falling for her and marrying him in a fake ceremony, Luna turned on every comic muscle effortlessly.

But the party of pop cultural icons made no convincing reason for taking the place of Sofronia’s (Norina’s) newly hired servants in the original. And as brilliantly shaded and secure as the chorus work was, the likes of Groucho Marx, Carmen Miranda, James Dean and Elvis Presley, amongst others, made lukewarm representations.

Still, Donizetti’s ‘opera buffa’ comes up trumps. Simply delighting in its fabulous singing is enough to recommend it but you get to laugh when you might least expect to and that surprise alone is priceless. 

Don Pasquale
Fort Worth Opera
Bass Performance Hall 
Until 6th May, 2018

Production Photos: Ben Torres

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A splendid cast sing up the spine tingling drama marvellously in Opera Australia's Tosca in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Melbourne's Herald Sun 25th April and in print 26th April 2018

In director John Bell’s Tosca for Opera Australia, Puccini’s original 1800 Napoleonic setting in Rome is catapulted into the time of the city’s 1943-44 Nazi occupation — and with it comes a spine tingling dramatic overlay that rivetingly reinforces its unjust tragedies under brutal forces.

Diego Torre as Cavaradossi and Latonia Moore as Tosca
In this persuasive revival by Hugh Halliday, if the arrival of Nazi uniformed soldiers in Act I’s magnificent church of Sant’Andrea waving swastika emblazoned blood red flags isn’t enough to chill — Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets create an ongoing evocative architectural backdrop — Puccini’s music conveys the mood startlingly. From beginning, Andrea Battistoni’s powerfully driven and intense conducting served impressively with an expert and secure Orchestra Victoria in the pit.

In a work containing some of Puccini’s most famous arias the microseconds matter in conveying dramatic realism or the ‘verismo’ that characterises his style. Its most compelling interpretation comes in one of all opera’s most unnerving scenes, that of Act 2’s blend of desperation, lust, torture and murder centring on three stellar leads.

Plush soprano Latonia Moore, as the jealous diva-ish Tosca, scorching tenor Diego Torre, as her accommodating lover, the painter Cavaradossi, and hellfire baritone Marco Vratogna, as the detestable Nazi commander Scarpia, captured the persistent unnerving tension hauntingly.

Latonia Moore as Tosca and Marco Vratogna as Scarpia
Moore’s animated fluctuations in Act 1 periodically clashed with her unswerving thrilling vocal splendour — a small quibble — but, as the titular tragedienne reflecting on her fate in “Vissi d’arte” (”I lived for art”), her piety struck by God’s seeming abandonment, Moore brought sobs of heartbreaking distress that superbly illuminated her dramatic prowess.

A fine actor, smooth in delivery and comfortable in monumentalising sustained finishing notes, Torre, oft-seen principal for Opera Australia, was an exceptional match as Cavaradossi.

The Opera Australia Chorus raised a glorious “Te Deum” against a ferocious-voiced Vratogna, who, as one of the most fearful Scarpias you’re likely to see, was outstanding as he thrust his command in viscous bursts before succumbing to Tosca’s calculating knife attack.

Finally, Tosca’s end in accepting bullets rather than taking a suicidal plunge from Castel Sant’Angelo seems a less convincing way to end but Bell’s overall concept is a terrifically breathtaking.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 10th May, 2018


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Monday, April 23, 2018

Raucous partying and well-surveyed emotions go head to head in Opera San Jose's vividly directed La traviata

When the curtain went up on Opera San Jose’s current revival of La traviata, Giuseppe Verdi’s most widely staged work, you knew you were in for an interesting encounter with a woman the demimonde held claim to. Surrounding the jubilant, white-laced gowned Violetta, looking more bride-to-be, however, than an eye-turning courtesan, a plush huddle of women in shades of purple-to-mauve and men in black tuxedos began a raucous start to proceedings that splashed the foreground with wild background life and screams of celebration. It could have swamped poor Violetta’s limelight - it did at times, again later at Violetta’s friend Flora’s party where the fetishes come out - but in this always vividly directed production by Shawna Lucey, when inner emotions were surveyed, they were peeled back to give glaring clarity.

Scene from Act 1, La traviata, Opera San Jose
Lucey brings forward Verdi’s original early 19th century Paris setting to the period immediately following the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. Erik Flatmo’s appealing and adaptable set - an obliquely orientated spit-level room featuring a large rear tracery window with a view to the Eiffel Tower, becoming Violetta’s country villa, cosy with fireplace and a view to a hedged yard for Act 2, to Flora’s debauched gambling den and, finally, Violetta’s spare, low-lit bedroom in Act 3 - provided an effective platform for both the many entrances and exits and carefully thought separation of action. Deciphering the details for most modern eyes, it was neither here no there but, in a telling manner, a soaring erect monument functioned as much as symbol of engineering progress as it would seem for a male-dominant society in which women were objectified.

Elizabeth Poindexter’s costumes were appropriately elegant and Pamila Z. Gray captured a gorgeous realism in her lighting design. When the late afternoon light gradually threw a copper glow on the drawing room of Violetta’s villa, you would’ve sworn the sun itself was backstage - part of an overall scheme that formed a seductive context for Violetta’s ultimate looming death.

Details such as this compliment Lucey’s fully laden storytelling that moved along with a cinematic quality where no angle seemed left unresolved. The woman who entered to find Violetta and Alfredo in their first fervent embrace and later suggested gossiping to the partygoers and the silent conversation that continued between Dr Grevil and Annina after he left Violetta’s bedside provided excitement to the eye in Lucey’s string of active ideas. 

Pene Pati as Alfredo and Amanda Kingston as Violetta
There were issues, perhaps due to Michelle Klaers D’Alo’s often over-choreographed work with the Opera San Jose chorus who were certainly fleet of foot and demonstrated just how well they can act but their early resounding singing fell into disarray by the time they sang Act 2's song of the handsome matador from Biscay.

Fortunately, the chemistry between lush-voiced Amanda Kingston’s Violetta and Pene Pati’s searing Alfredo was brought together poignantly - both sensitive actors, both compelling singers and both secure in sealing their passions with long extended kisses.

Kingston effortlessly brought out a cachet of complexly drawn richness in Violetta’s character - her indelible vivaciousness, an initial mocking of the man she would seek love’s solace in and the tender and romantic side it later brought out, the grief at giving up Alfredo and, in suffering, the desperation to live. Kingston’s vocal adeptness to harness both the vitality and gravitas of the role was evident. A meaty lower register impressed as much as the purity and ring of the top of the voice and her accomplished ornamentations greatly appealed in this, the third performance of the run. If the voice required that little bit more attention, it was in the whispering lighter side. It wasn’t as if it couldn’t be achieved without loss of emotional depth because that’s exactly what Kingston added in a final act she made both immediate and heartbreaking.

A big man with a big, warm thrilling sound who injects brilliant life into every note, New Zealand tenor Pene Pati appeared to relish every turn of events in his performance as the passionate Alfredo (Dane Suarez alternates in the role). Diction-clear, and delivering phrases with confident momentum, Pati, like Kingston, easily mined the potential in his character with a youthful ardour to accompany it and making a perfect contrast to Violetta’s worldly assuredness.

Amanda Kingston as Violetta and Malcolm MacKenzie as Giorgio Germont
When Alfredo’s staunch patriarchal father, Giorgio Germont, arrived at Violetta’s country villa in Act 2, he came in resonant and smoky baritone form with the well-cast Malcolm MacKenzie (Trevor Neal alternates in the role). Once Violetta and Giorgio’s initial restless orbit about the room was done, the pair settled into a thoroughly engaging musical discourse in which the voices, drama and action entwined poignantly. MacKenzie coloured Giorgio with a calculating, calm and starched presence in front of a woman he saw unfit for his son, authoritative in front of his son and genuinely remorseful for his demands in front of both in the final scene. 

Broad-ranged gravelly bass Philip Skinner projected voluminously as an imposing Baron Douphol, at times overwhelming his colleagues but dignified in stature until the he lifts a brutal hand to Violetta. Handsome and warm baritone Babatunde Akinboboye took to the task with complete ease on all fours in doggy fashion to satisfy Flora’s masochistic tendencies as Marchese D’Obigny. As Flora, mezzo-soprano Christina Pezzarossi sang without the consistent radiance you would expect to match a persona she otherwise filled with fun and frivolity and Mason Gates took a little time to settle before his muscular tenor took flight as Gastone. Both Erin O’Meally and Colin Ramsey supported the drama sympathetically in fine voice as Violetta’s young dependable maid Annina and her attentive doctor, Dr Grenvil respectively. 

But as passionately interpreted overall as it was, it wasn’t all roses musically. Verdi’s  stringed introspective overture moved along languidly, the notes clear but requiring a deeper intensity. The tempi often shifted abruptly making its demands on the artists. Most luminous, however, was conductor Joseph Marcheso’s ability to raise the full orchestral forces with surging energy and expression when the score demanded and where the players of the San Jose Opera Orchestra made their greatest impression. 

La traviata 
Opera San Jose
California Theatre
Until 29th April 2018

Production Photos: courtesy of Opera San Jose

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Moshinsky's lavish La traviata for Opera Australia is brought to vivid life once again in Melbourne

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun in edited form, 19th April and online 23rd April 2018.

Since 1994, Elijah Moshinsky’s lavish production of Verdi’s La traviata for Opera Australia has provided a highly detailed view into famed courtesan Violetta Valéry’s 19th century world. From Violetta’s sumptuously appointed salon to the courtyard outside her country villa, onto the Moorish exoticism at her friend Flora’s party and, finally, to the spare and faded glory of her surrounds as she desperately hopes to live, Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter Hall’s intricate costumes are a masterpiece of stage design.

Scene from Act 1, La traviata, Opera Australia
Back in Melbourne to open the autumn season, it was brought to vivid life by a strong lead cast, depth of character in supporting roles and a wonderfully rich chorus under revival director Constantine Costi.

Nothing feels superfluous in Verdi and librettist Piave’s taut dramatic structure and story that appeals just as much today to our own sense of moral justice as it did to the ‘respectable’ classes of its day.

Struck by love in partying pleasure and swilling champagne from the bottle like there’s no tomorrow as she defies the tuberculosis that weakens her, American soprano Corinne Winters worked the festivities vivaciously in creamy-rich voice as Violetta. A few nervous trips in timing impeded initial ownership of the role but, stirred by emotion and pondering if Alfredo could be the one when left alone singing “È strano! ... Ah, fors'è lui” (“Ah, perhaps he is the one"), Winters bloomed marvellously. It was the emotional emphatic bursts on single phrases that genuinely crowned her performance.

Yosep Kang’s youthful Alfredo instantly impressed with his ripe, resonant and passionately driven tenor. Together with Winters, the vocal blend entwined affectingly, most poignantly in Act 3’s duet of hopeless optimism. If only the eyes met more often and the kisses planted more tenderly to cement the chemistry overall.

Corinne Winters as Violetta and José Carbó Giorgio Germont
But the central conflict that upheaves momentary tranquility in Act 2 with the arrival of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, came with sublime dramatic interplay between Winters, Kang and baritone José Carbó in brilliant authoritative form as the stern and distinguished father.

Dominica Matthews made a striking show as a bubbly, laissez-faire Flora. Notably robust performances also drove home the context of male dominance with John Longmuir as Gastone, Adrian Tamburini as Barone Douphol and Tom Hamilton as Marquis d'Obigny.
Conductor Carlo Montanaro exerted sympathetic and moody breadth to the score, rightfully applauding in gesture at curtain call the threadbare weeping string playing that contrasted with the larger orchestral lushness of Orchestra Victoria.

How much longer Moshinsky’s iconic La traviata will adorn the company’s future is unknown but when it’s gone, it will be worthy for classification on an historic register.

La traviata 
Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 11th May, 2018


Production Photos: Jeff Busby