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The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013

29 November 2013, Melbourne, Australia

Stalwart: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
Stalwart: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried(Photos: Jeff Busby)

Jud Arthur, terrifying as Fafner
Jud Arthur, terrifying as Fafner

The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'
The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'

Review by Ashutosh Khandekar

An air of expectation hung heavily around this Ring cycle, Opera Australia’s first, staged in the wake of the runaway critical success of the 2004 Adelaide Festival production, exuberantly directed by Elke Reinhardt (who, in a cruel twist of irony, died in Sydney after a battle with cancer during the run of this current cycle).

A year-long international publicity campaign delivered a clear, confident message: this new production of the Ring would have a strong Australian identity, with an all-Australian creative team, establishing the credentials of Melbourne, rather than Sydney, as Australia’s top opera destination.

The result was a sell-out for all three cycles within 24 hours of the box office opening. Self-styled ‘Wagneroos’ from all over the world descended on the Melbourne Arts Centre for what was the last significant production of the Ring in Wagner’s jubilee year. A street parade through the centre of Melbourne, with celebrities and citizens in horned helmets and blond plaits, launched the event with a real air of celebration.

This outward confidence hid a somewhat less secure genesis. This Australian Ring actually started life in Houston, where the Grand Opera was looking for a co-producer for a new cycle. Opera Australia came on board, but then Houston decided to place its allegiances elsewhere. That left the Australians holding the baby – but they ran with it, turning a problem into an opportunity. In stepped Maureen Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet guides, who backed the project to the hilt, both financially and as a tireless advocate garnering support both at home and abroad.
 
Neil Armfield, one of Australia’s leading theatre directors and an experienced opera hand, was invited to direct, assembling a design team who had worked together on several significant projects; composer/conductor Richard Mills, a distinguished figure in the Australian opera world, was given his first shot at the Ring. Mills, in the end, stepped down, citing a ‘lack of chemistry’ between him and the cast; and before curtain up, there was some last-minute shuffling of the cast itself.

Mills’ replacement was the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, due to conduct a new Ring cycle in Sicily, a troubled affair which self-destructed when funding ran dry. Melbourne came to the rescue, snapping him up for his first staged cycle.

So, there we have the backdrop to this new cycle. What started out as an out-and-out Australian Ring ended up being an altogether more eclectic undertaking, featuring home-grown talent and international names, bringing a curious mix of experience and naivety to the project.

Armfield and his set designer Robert Cousins had already scored an international hit with another saga of a dysfunctional family in their five-hour theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s quintessentially Australian novel, Cloudstreet.  Using the same ‘Poor Theatre’ approach in the Ring, Armfield subverted Wagner’s grandiloquence at every turn. This was an understated, everyday Ring, inspired by a world of end-of-pier entertainments and bourgeois aspirations, with the gods in sharply tailored suits and furs, and mortals in baggy, ill-fitting leisurewear (costumes by Alice Babidge).

There are half-remembered allusions to the Ring’s performance history: exquisite recreations of painted backdrops from the 1896 Bayreuth production of the Ring, showing romantic landscapes of rivers and forests with Valhalla looming in the distance. Nostalgia reigns in Das Rheingold, with its simple pleasures of beach holidays and variety shows. The Rhinemaidens are  showgirls in aquamarine ostrich feathers entertaining the chorus who cheer on with golden pompoms; Alberich is a magician with a box of tricks; Wotan meanwhile, is found assembling the remnants of an old world that is in the process of self-annihilation – stuffed animals either extinct or on the verge, packed into cases, ready to move to their new home as exhibits from a lost era. Fasolt and Fafner make their entrance on forklift trucks, contractors insisting on their fees. The rainbow bridge to Valhalla is a team of cheerleaders brandishing yet more pompoms.

Die Walküre depicts a world of innocence lost, full of threat and menace. Oppressed peoples wander over the landscape as drab refugees. The maiden-warriors in combat gear descend from the flies on steel wires, an air ambulance team clearing the battlefield of the dead.

This was where Armfield’s production began to get a bit lost. What was this all adding up to? Walküre began to make me think that this Ring had no overarching vision – a series of disconnected ideas, evocative as tableaux, perhaps, but at odds with the unified dramatic sweep and rapture of Wagner’s score.

Siegfried hinted at something more thoughtful, though Armfield remained grimly determined to avoid any epic gestures. Only the image of Fafner, a sinister actor making up his face, projected in terrifying close-up on a large screen, provided any sense of a superhuman dimension where the imagination could be unleashed. Götterdämmerung delivered some pyrotechnics by the end, but was for the most part resolutely unheroic with its backdrop of a kitsch suburban wedding.

The underwhelming staging was enlivened by some fine performances. Memorable among them was Warwick Fyfe’s engaging pantomime villain of an Alberich; Heyseoung Kwon’s fragile, touching Freia; Jud Arthur as a violent Hunding and a vicious but strangely vulnerable Fafner; the big-hearted Siegmund of Stuart Skelton, riveting our attention with his emotional incandescence; Stefan Vinke’s stalwart, indefatigable Siegfried, full of adolescent ardour; and an intense, fulminating Deborah Humble as Erda and Waltraute.

Susan Bullock, exhausted perhaps at the end of a long Wagnerian year, fell short of the big moments as Brünnhilde, scuppered by rather static direction that left her to rely on histrionics of her own devising. Terje Stensvold grew in stature to become a satisfying Wotan, though once again, any notion of a heroic aspect to the king of gods was kept firmly reined in.

The Melbourne Ring Orchestra played exquisitely and expansively over much of this cycle. Pietari Inkinen’s interpretation was strong on beauty, poise and balance, but his tempi were often excruciatingly slow and deliberate, killing any dramatic momentum.

Armfield and his team have given Opera Australia a Ring that tells the story clearly and free of directorial clutter. That is a huge asset. However, the first cycle felt like a Ring-in-progress, a self-consciously unassuming, introspective staging, strong in narrative power, but struggling to find a coherent, expressive language of imagery and imagination to match Wagner’s sublime blend of music and metaphysics.


Runners-up in the Opera Now Montblanc competition

15 October 2013

Thank you to our many readers from all over the world who sent in their memorable encounters of opera. 

***

My first time

I first experienced opera in an Iowa City living room. A friend of mine asked me to accompany him to a DVD screening at the home of an Austrian couple. I would be the only person who wasn’t, in his words, an ‘opera fanatic.’

I was anxious. I searched for opera information online. I learned new phrases: opera buffa and libretto and bel canto. I researched the history of the show we were watching, then listened to various renditions of the music we would be hearing.

The internet had no answers for one of my biggest concerns: what do you wear to a living room opera? I decided jeans and a sweater were fine.

The night came, and the four of us had a home-cooked Austrian dinner and then watched Così fan tutte on a flat-screen TV. I enjoyed the music, the production, and the acting (even though I didn’t understand a word of what I was watching).

Before that night, opera was something I thought I could only appreciate during opening ceremonies of the Olympics or when an opera singer released a new Christmas album. Before that night, I thought someone like me could never be cultured enough to ‘get’ opera.

To be fair, I still don’t ‘get’ opera. I’m not comfortable discussing the relative merits of the Italian and German style. I’m not interested in comparing Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Anna Netrebko. They’re all great, to me.

I’m an uneducated beginner, but watching my first opera in an Iowa living room taught me to appreciate opera on my own terms. Feel like switching between arias and Jay Z on YouTube? Go for it! Don’t have enough money to visit the Lyric Opera for every show? Do what you can.

The lesson was: enjoy opera in living rooms, in theatres, or through live broadcasts of the Met at your local cinema. Rent a tux when you have to; but, if you enjoy it, find ways to experience opera on your terms.

Maybe someday I’ll feel educated enough to choose between modern or traditional stagings of classic operas (I think I prefer modern stagings ... but I love traditional too). Until then, I’ll enjoy it however I can.

Drew Cummings-Peterson, Iowa USA

***

A lingering memory

It was Nabucco in 1953, performed by what was at the time the pro-am Welsh National Opera company. It was at the Grand Theatre Swansea and I was just 14. My father persuaded me to go; he was a good amateur tenor of concert standard, but he couldn’t go with me as he was working night shifts at the local steelworks.

I caught the bus for an eight-mile ride into Swansea and queued. There was some advance publicity but we couldn’t book as we had no phone. It was a long queue and I was kept busy by looking at pictures of the stars – Ruth Packer as Abigaille and Tano Ferendinos as Ismaele. I can’t remember the others sadly. One comment in the queue was ‘any good tunes in this one?’ We also saw the chorus arriving at the stage door, many still in their work clothes.

The box office opened and I bought my ticket which was way up in the ‘gods’. The opera began. I was stunned; the colour, the sound, the costumes, the exoticism of Nebuchadnezzar’s Mesopotamia, couldn’t be further removed from the coal mining and steelmaking grimness of the lower Swansea Valley in the early ’50s. How did they manage to get the massive and monumental sets up there? How did the singers sing over the orchestra? When ‘Va, pensiero’ ended, there was silence and then a crash of sound I have never heard since – even when Wales beat England at rugby!

Then it was over. I left the theatre in a daze, got to the bus stop and found I had spent all my money on a programme and a drink. So I walked home, all eight miles, humming and singing all I could remember. I got home shattered and my mother frantic as it was after 11 at night and I had school the next day.

It was unforgettable, however, and I became an instant operaphile – and I still am at 74 years of age.

David Price, Tonbridge, Kent 

***

A star is born

Cape Town as a venue for operatic productions is by no means a rival for the great companies operating at Covent Garden, the Met and other famous houses. Our currency is too weak, and our shores too distant to attract booked-to-the-hilt stars like Netrebko and Kaufmann.

Fortunately we have some enviable home-grown talent, though admittedly they operate out of more conveniently located cities like London and Milan. Thus it was that local opera lovers girded their loins and dusted off their finery when Pretty Yende and Colin Lee rolled into town for a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, under the baton of Richard Bonynge. Front row seats were the only sensible choice

Colin Lee is a favourite in Cape Town, but it must be said that the evening was Pretty’s. She trained at the University of Cape Town some years ago, and it was clear from the start that here was an exceptional talent. Even so, her meteoric rise has taken our breath away. Is this the little girl inspired by a British Airways ad? There was a palpable sense of excitement. She just had to walk onto the stage to have us in the palm of her hand. And what a performance it was, her soaring lyric soprano washing over us, her clarion top notes sending shivers down our spines. I glanced at the audience behind me. The word swooning came to mind. During her mad aria I struggled to suppress hysterical giggles: it was so…well…insane. The standing ovation went on and on, and when Richard Bonynge warmly congratulated her, I couldn’t help wondering if he was remembering his late wife Joan Sutherland’s benchmark performances of this aria.

What an impossible task Colin Lee had, with so much of his role still to come, and after such a climax. So here’s my confession: Lee’s Edgardo stole the show. I’m a sucker for a lyric tenor, and what a lyric tenor we had! A friend commented to me afterwards that this thought kept on flicking through her brain: he sings like an accountant. She didn’t know that he is one, and it was meant (believe it or not) as a compliment. His passionate, effortless lyricism was so precisely rendered that I immediately understood why my friend had thought accountant. I’m sure that was Pretty’s mother sitting three seats down from me (didn’t have the courage to ask). She was the first to leap to her feet to give him the standing ovation he deserved.

I don’t need to tell you the rest: the clap clap, bow bow, trooping in and out, smile smile. The race to the car park. There’s something about world-class opera: it stays with you forever.

Rose-Mary Hyslop, Cape Town, South Africa 

 

NI Opera scores a hit with Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore

9 October 2013, Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland

Unaffected and heart-warming: Anna Patalong and John Molloy in NI Opera’s 'Elixir of Love'
Unaffected and heart-warming: Anna Patalong and John Molloy in NI Opera’s 'Elixir of Love'(Photo: Paul Moane)

Recasting Donizetti’s comedy of gullible hicks as Grease set in a dowdy Irish high school might sound odd, but Oliver Mears’s production for NI Opera pulled off the trick with witty charm (helped along by Arthur Jacobs’s lovely old translation).

So well pitched was Mears’s staging of this bel canto classic, that the unpretentious crowd in the spanking new Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, a few miles north of Belfast, awarded it one of the most spontaneous standing ovations I’ve seen.

The tiny orchestra of 17, soloists of the Ulster Orchestra, could have had a bit more zing but David Brophy conducted with a lilting elegance that conjured Schubert in chamber-mode in the overture before reverting to the strumming accompaniments of Donizetti’s graceful, pathos-laden idiom; the (mostly) single instruments revelled in the chaste detailing of this affectionate score.

It may not have been strict social realism, but Mears treated his personnel like real people, letting relationships develop and creating familiar characters without cliché. Anna Patalong’s teacher Adina was a buttoned-up, repressed romantic just waiting for someone to melt her ice, and her beautifully controlled singing brought many shades and a rare ardour to what can be a chilly character. There was a palpable sense here of someone growing up and admitting her true nature to herself.

Anthony Flaum sang Nemorino, rather squeezed at the top but altogether very fluent. This geeky no-hoper actually turned out to be a pretty snappy mover, and Flaum caught the mix of baffled innocence, droopy defeatism and childlike glee brilliantly; teased, beaten up, rejected, he just bounced back like a beach ball.

The beating-up was administered by James McOran-Campbell as bluff chancer Belcore, with his army-recruitment gang the object of much cooing admiration from the sixth-form girls. Inevitably stealing the show was John Molloy as Dulcamara, a slippery customer equipped with a chemistry set and stage-Oirish asides that were, for once, actually quite funny. From his first insulting greeting to the ‘provincial folk’ patsies, this Dulcamara was a ball of opportunistic energy, resourceful and adept, creating a proper relationship with Adina (their ‘Senator’ cameo was particularly smart) and the happy vehicle for Donizetti’s optimistic contention that human nature can create good out of the most unlikely motivation.

Mears’s fast-moving, inventive and sensitive staging was full of good things: I particularly liked a foolish wedding-feast parade of historical lovers. There weren’t too many subtexts here, but this was among the most unaffectedly heart-warming and well-thought-out Elisirs you could hope for.

NI Opera’s Elixir of Love will tour to the Republic of Ireland from 25 January to 8 February 2014, visiting Navan, Sligo, Dun Laoghaire, Letterkenny, Dublin, Tralee and Galway.


Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach

21 June 2013, Aldeburgh, UK

Alan Oke, braving the elements on Aldeburgh beach as Peter Grimes
Alan Oke, braving the elements on Aldeburgh beach as Peter Grimes(Photo: Robert Workman)

Review by Hannah Nepil

Widely anticipated as the Benjamin Britten centenary tribute of the year, Tim Albery’s production of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach – open to the elements – could hardly avoid selling out at the box office. In the end, the event proved every bit as successful as the build-up had promised.

This was, astonishingly, the first production of Peter Grimes to be staged in Aldeburgh, the composer’s sleepy home town on the Suffolk coast, where the opera’s narrative actually unfolds. Walking along the ram-packed seafront, I felt as though I was limbering up for a rock gig. On one side of the beach stood a towering block of tiered seating, flanked by an army of Portaloos. On the other was the coastline, blocked partially from view by Albery’s impressive but simple set: an enormous platform comprising five large fishing boats.

Once the music started, the audience was fully immersed in Grimes’s world – one underscored by the cry of swooping seagulls, the sound of rushing wind and the rumbling of the North Sea, just a few metres away. The show began shortly before sunset and ended at midnight. Peter Grimes’s final departure took place in total darkness. A more haunting conclusion would be difficult to imagine.

Inevitably, there was a price to pay: miked up to the maximum, the singers struggled to maintain sound quality, while Steuart Bedford’s pre-recorded orchestra boomed out of the speakers. Words were muffled by electronic distortion and, with no surtitles to fall back on, it was easy to lose sense of the plot. At times it was hard to distinguish who was singing at all. For those who had not seen the opera before, this possibly wasn’t the best way in.

Then again, the singers performed with conviction and stoicism – some braving the elements in the skimpiest of costumes. Alan Oke’s Grimes was a portrait of complexity: rough, tough and terrified. Giselle Allen's Ellen Orford exuded softness and warmth.

There’s little chance of this Grimes being repeated in the near future; but it certainly won’t be quickly forgotten.

'Grimes on the Beach' will be screened in cinemas across the UK from Thursday 5 September 2013. Click here for the full screening schedule and online bookings

 

English Touring Opera's spring season 2013

8 April 2013, London, UK

Craig Smith as ETO's Simon Boccanegra
Craig Smith as ETO's Simon Boccanegra(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Kitty Whately and Lorna Bridge in a scene from Mozart's 'Così fan tutte'
Kitty Whately and Lorna Bridge in a scene from Mozart's 'Così fan tutte'(Photo: Robert Workman)

Review by George Hall

English Touring Opera’s spring tour is a huge undertaking, visiting 19 theatres around the UK, from Truro in Cornwall to Perth in Scotland, over a busy three months of travel and performance. This year’s tour offered three main-stage titles as well as the new children’s opera Laika the Spacedog, and Spin, a new piece designed for young people with severe learning difficulties.

Donizetti rare L’assedio di Calais (Siege of Calais) proved the most problematic evening of the three, though not on account of the piece, a mature work (1836) which, even if not a major hit in the composer’s lifetime, has been successfully revived in ours – notably at the Wexford Festival and twice by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; director James Conway’s production, though, represented the first professional staging in the UK.

It was not one of his best. Part of the problem stemmed from a decision to drop the opera’s third act – in which the English King Edward III, urged on by his queen, pardons rather than executes the famous Burghers of Calais, and the opera ends on a note of forgiveness and joy. Donizetti expressed dissatisfaction with his original act, and revised it, but while there is evidence that it was entirely dropped in later Neapolitan performances, there is none to suggest that this decision had the composer’s approval. In ETO’s production, individual numbers from Act III were repositioned earlier in the score while the narrative’s overall trajectory was damagingly truncated: ending with the burghers preparing for martyrdom radically alters the work’s moral tone.

The visual inspiration was the Siege of Stalingrad of 1942-43, rather than the 14th century. Samal Blak’s designs conveyed the desperation of warfare, though the overall effect was untidy rather than coherent. What distinction the evening possessed came from Jeremy Silver’s conducting and some fine singing from Cozmin Sime’s Edoardo, Eddie Wade’s Eustachio, Paula Sides’s Eleonora and especially Helen Sherman’s Aurelio, who demonstrated a real flair for articulating Donizetti’s flamboyant writing.

More successful in its traditional way was Paul Higgs’s staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, set in period in Blak’s elegant designs and sung in Martin Fitzpatrick’s English translation. Not all of the complex ambiguity of the piece came through, though enough did to maintain interest; indeed the production came more sharply into focus as it went on.

While James Burton’s conducting needed sharper definition and deeper insight into Mozart’s score, the cast was more than presentable. Especially notable were Lorna Bridge’s vulnerable Fiordiligi, Kitty Whately’s characterful Dorabella, Anthony Gregory’s graceful Ferrando and particularly Paula Sides’s Despina. Sides gave a fully thought-through performance that emphasised the character’s cynicism to a degree that was almost disturbing. This is a role that often sounds vocally pinched, so it was good to hear its vocal lines fleshed out with meaningful tone.

ETO’s third production was its most ambitious. Simon Boccanegra is a big score, making substantial orchestral and choral demands as part of Verdi’s grand scheme. Even with less than ideally sized forces at their disposal, the company attacked the piece with real gusto under its music director, Michael Rosewell, whose assured Verdian instincts registered with appreciable dramatic momentum.

The cast, too, rose to a series of major challenges with distinction. Craig Smith’s Boccanegra combined vocal and dramatic authority in a realisation that rose to genuine nobility. Keel Watson’s Fiesco possessed magnetism and grandeur, his resolute bass employed with imagination and variety. Elizabeth Llewellyn encompassed the requirements of Amelia with consistent vocal beauty and musical discrimination; with each new role she seems an ever more likely candidate for a top-level career. Charne Rochford took on the major tenor challenge of Gabriele Adorno with genuine success, even if the role clearly taxes him. Grant Doyle made the sinister Paolo into a focus of attention in a performance that was as finely acted as it was firmly sung.

This was Conway’s second production of the season, and in it he showed what he is capable of at his best. The young, award-winning designer Samal Blak (who designed all three ETO productions) moved us forward to the corrupt and violent Italy of the 1970s, where the drama played out clearly on a stark platform. Dramatic values were high throughout, and the evening rose to remarkable heights.

ETO’s spring season continues until the end of May, visiting Buxton, Cheltenham, Warwick, Perth, Cambridge, Guildford and Truro.



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