Turandot: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 24

Turandotdancers

Riccardo Massi and Dragana Radakovic. Photo: Prudence Upton

Spectacle is a pre-requisite for Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – and Turandot doesn’t disappoint, offering plenty of visual thrills without resorting to tacky glitziness. Nor does it ever feel that the stage is full of colour and movement just for the sake of it.

What’s more, with Dragana Radakovic as Turandot and Riccardo Massi as Calaf, the production is led by principal singers who are able to command the huge space with their magnetic presence and powerhouse vocals.

 Set in a fantasy China, Puccini’s final (and unfinished) opera tells a barbaric tale. Turandot, the ice-cold princess, demands that her suitors are beheaded if they fail to answer three riddles. The score includes many glorious melodies (some of which draw on Chinese tunes) and, of course, the well-known aria Nessun dorma.

Given the one-dimensional stereotyping of Asian women in Turandot and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Chinese-born New York-based director Chen Shi-Zheng has knocked back many offers to direct both operas, but allowed himself to be talked into it now by OA artistic director Lyndon Terracini.

In interviews, Chen has said that he aims to present Princess Turandot as a more complex and believably human figure, while also seeing her as an embodiment of China with its centuries-old suspicion of the West.

Whether he achieves that is debatable. Despite a superb performance from Radakovic, Turandot (who explains in an Act II aria why she hates the foreign princes who come to woo her) doesn’t really come across as any more nuanced a character than usual.

Be that as it may, Chen’s production tells the story with great clarity. He uses the vast stage well and is adept at ensuring the focus is where it needs to be.

TurandotDragon

The Turandot set with fire-breathing dragon. Photo: Prudence Upton

Dan Potra’s design is dominated by two major set pieces. On one side there is a giant, fire-breathing dragon whose tail suggests the Great Wall of China onto which images are projected. There’s also a towering pagoda studded with sharp spikes resembling dragon scales, from where Turandot looks down on the world below. The tower has a (wobbly) drawbridge on which she gradually descends with each riddle that Calaf guesses correctly.

The dragon imagery extends to Turandot’s gorgeous, shimmering silvery white and blue gown. Potra’s costuming makes clever use of colour, pattern and sparkle without over-doing it, while Scott Zielinski’s dramatic, coloured lighting creates many stunning effects. The one design element that looks odd is the Emperor’s throne, which moves through the air on a crane like a gigantic flying sofa.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is now in its fifth year and fireworks have become an expected feature. Turandot doesn’t offer many obvious moments for their inclusion so they explode after Nessun dorma. It’s not ideal but given the audience’s rapturous response to that most famous of arias it works OK, though keeping them to the end might have been better.

Chen has also done the choreography, which draws on martial arts for the guards, while Turandot’s female attendants glide around the stage, sending their billowing sleeves flying through the air. As with his direction, the movement serves the story and production beautifully.

Radakovic, a Serbian dramatic soprano, is an impressive, imperious Turandot with an exciting, powerful voice that has a glinting, steely quality at times, which suits the character.

Massi is magnificent as Calaf. The Italian tenor is a tall man, giving him a commanding, heroic presence. He exudes enormous charisma and warmth, matched by his beautiful, rich, burnished voice. In a sensitive rendition of Nessun dorma he builds the aria perfectly, bringing the house down as he soars to the climactic top B.

(The production features two alternating casts, with Daria Masiero as Turandot and Arnold Rawls as Calaf heading the other).

TurandotLiu

Hyeseoung Kwon as Liu. Photo: Prudence Upton

Liu, the slave girl who secretly loves Calaf, is at the emotional heart of the opera. Hyeseoung Kwon who has sung the role previously for OA is heartbreaking. She sings with a moving lyricism, while portraying the character with more strength and resolve than is often the case. Her torture has you wincing and her suicide is very moving.

There is terrific work from Luke Gabbedy, Benjamin Rasheed and John Longmuir as the comic courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong who have plenty of choreography to negotiate while singing. Conal Coad as the blind Timur, David Lewis as the Emperor and Gennadi Dubinsky as the Mandarin all offer strong support, while the chorus is marvellous.

The Australian and Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, gives a fine account of the score and while you are always aware of the amplification, Tony David Cray’s sound design is clear.

With its combination of spectacle, clear story-telling and superb singing, Turandot should appeal to both regular opera-goers and newcomers. Having Chinese as well as English surtitles is also an astute move as OA seeks to broaden the audience for what has become a key event on Sydney’s arts calendar.

Turandot: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point; until April 24. Bookings: 02 9318 8200, opera.org.au/Harbour

 A version of this review ran online for Daily Telegraph Arts

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The Barber of Seville

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 28

Opera AustraliaThe Barber of Seville

Left to right: Warwick Fyfe as Dr Bartolo and Paolo Bordogna as Figaro. Photo: Keith Saunders

Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville, written in 1816 when he was just 24, is a wonderfully silly romp with the anarchic spirit of the narrative fun and games encapsulated in the sparkling score, which is full of catchy but complex melodies.

It’s hard to imagine a production that captures all the hilarity better than this one from Elijah Moshinsky. I’ve seen it several times now and it’s always a laugh-out loud delight. If you need a tonic, give this a go.

First staged by Opera Australia in 1995, and revived here by Hugh Halliday, you’d never believe that the production is 21 years old. Instead, it feels fresh as a daisy.

Adapted from Beaumarchais’ play, the plot revolves around Count Almaviva’s attempts to win the delectable Rosina from under the nose of her aging, rather odious guardian, Dr Bartolo, who wants her for himself. Aided and abetted by the barber Figaro – the go-to man if you need anything sorted – Almaviva enters Dr Bartolo’s house in various disguises and comic mayhem ensues.

Moshinsky has updated the action to the 1920s with boaters, bicycles and Buster Keaton-style shenanigans inspired by the silent movies – an era and style of comedy that suits the opera brilliantly.

The garish, cartoon-bright set by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Dana Granata are a hoot in their own right. Yeargan puts an open house on stage so that you can see into various rooms, upstairs and downstairs, at the same time from Dr Bartolo’s surgery to Rosina’s bedroom and the drawing room. Loudly patterned wallpaper makes an eye-watering statement, while Granata’s equally bright costumes add to the visual fun.

Delicious comic moments abound: a miniature terrace of houses from which small-scale, motorised figures of Bartolo and Rosina emerge as from a cuckoo clock; the barber shop scene with customers (and two theatre ushers) shrieking beneath steaming hot towels only to emerge beautifully coiffured; a bicycle ride through a storm staged like a segment in a silent film; Bartolo’s hapless patients who leave his surgery in worse shape than they arrived; and the police traipsing through Bartolo’s house and squashing into his surgery in Keystone Kops fashion.

There’s so much going on visually it could dwarf a mediocre cast, but the performers assembled here not only have the goods vocally but the acting and comic chops to pull it off brilliantly.

From the second Paolo Bordogna bounds onto stage from the auditorium as Figaro, he charms with his puppyish energy and wonderfully rich baritone. He plays the role to the hilt, always completely in the moment. His facial expressions are priceless, he has the measure of the broad comic style to a tee, and his lithe physicality is matched by his agile voice. He really is a charmer and the ideal Figaro.

Opera AustraliaThe Barber of Seville

Anna Dowsley and Kenneth Tarver. Photo: Keith Saunders

Anna Dowsley, who has established herself playing pants roles such as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Siebel in Faust and Tebaldo in Don Carlos, shows that she has the sparkle and charm to be a leading lady. She captures Rosina’s pertness and clear-eyed determination to get what she wants, and sings beautifully, her shining mezzo secure yet flexible.

American tenor Kenneth Tarver has a lovely, smooth voice and a warm stage presence, while Warwick Fyfe is a knockout as the creepy Bartolo (returning to the role, which he played when the production was last staged in 2011). He is a fine comic actor and sings superbly.

There are also impressive performances from David Parkin as Don Basilio, Jane Ede as Bartolo’s housekeeper and Samuel Dundas as Almaviva’s servant Fiorella. Dundas also gets huge laughs as Ambrogio, Bartolo’s silent servant, who shuffles around zombie-like in filthy uniform, a fag hanging from his mouth.

With Maestro Andrea Molina conducting the orchestra at a suitably sprightly pace, you’d be hard pressed to have more fun at the opera. A complete delight.

The Barber of Seville plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 22. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 27

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

The giant, crumbling head of Queen Nefertiti dominating the stage for this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida looks genuinely spectacular in its stunning location and is used to great effect, with a particularly striking image at the end of the production. But with the rest of the spectacle feeling decidedly ad hoc, the opening night of Aida well and truly belonged to American soprano Latonia Moore in the title role.

For its fourth harbour outing, Opera Australia has chosen Verdi’s Aida, which combines lavish spectacle with an intimate love triangle between Egyptian military commander Radames, Ethiopian slave Aida (later revealed to be a Princess) and the jealous Princess Amneris, daughter of the Pharoah.

In the first part, it’s spectacle all the way as director Gale Edwards and designer Mark Thompson fill the stage with ceremonial pomp and bucket-loads of glitz.

The costuming mixes styles and eras (“a world caught between times” says the program): men in contemporary suits and others in Fascist military uniforms, ornately clad priests looking straight out of ancient Egypt, OTT golden gowns for the Egyptian women (dubbed the Kardashian chorus by the cast) in which the singers look rather awkward, and vibrantly coloured, boldly patterned fabrics for the Ethiopians.

There doesn’t seem to be any coherent vision behind it; instead it just looks like a lot of disparate visual elements. Worse, the camp costumes for the dancers look oddly out of place, even crass. There are space age storm troopers in Latex (or some such fabric) with helmets and jackboots who would be right at home in the Mardi Gras parade, can-can girls (yes, really) and ceremonial male dancers whose tight black outfits with chains shout bondage. Apparently they’re jackals, though I couldn’t pick that from my seat near the back. Dancing with golden-clad ballet dancers, it is a low point of the production. Lucas Jervies’ clichéd choreography doesn’t help.

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s true that the positioning of the priests and soldiers around the stage frequently looks dazzling under Matt Scott’s highly dramatic, coloured lighting, but then a distracting gaudy or camp element will intrude, undercutting the effect.

Oil drums stacked at the back of the stage suggest wealth built on petrol – though this isn’t true of Egypt – but nothing more is done with them. Edwards also includes rows of black coffins, which are set out on stage, each with a single lily on them, in the famous Triumphal March. It’s a powerful image alongside the spoils of war and the spectacle of four camels and fireworks, but the politics of the piece don’t reverberate anywhere near as strongly as promised in pre-publicity.

At the same time, any sense of genuine human intimacy is lost in the first half of the production with Amneris, Aida and Radames frequently singing to each other across acres of stage.

After interval, when things quieten and human emotion is allowed to shine through, the production is much more successful. A stronger, clearer focus on the leading characters, positioned close together centrestage, opens the way for us to engage emotionally.

Even then there is a strange piece of staging when a metal mesh frame rises from the front of the stage (creating sight line issues) and then lowers again later. I think it was meant to suggest the opening and closing of the vault in which Radames is buried alive. However, there is no sense whatsoever of he and Aida being sealed in a dark tomb.

Fortunately Latonia Moore is superb. Singing with great beauty and warmth across her range from a rich, strong bottom register to a glowing top, her gorgeous voice outshines the spectacle. Acting with great conviction, she brings real heart to the production.

As Amneris, Serbian-born mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic gives a compelling, passionate performance, convincingly moving from imperiousness to heartfelt, bitter regret.

Walter Fraccaro is less persuasive as Radames. He sings with power but little expressiveness, while his voice showed a tendency to wobble on opening night. Acting-wise he has little charisma and next to no chemistry with Moore.

Among the rest of the cast, Michael Honeyman as Amonasro and David Parkin as Ramphis are particularly impressive.

There are two alternating casts with Daria Masiero, Arnold Rawls, Jacqueline Dark and Warwick Fyfe leading the other.

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Verdi’s music is glorious, of course, and the orchestra led by Brian Castles-Onion does it justice, while the sound, though muddy at times, is overall reasonably good.

The production is worth seeing if just for Latonia Moore and the Queen Nefertiti set piece. Some of the staging is undeniably spectacular, but compared to last year’s brilliant, hard-hitting, contemporary production of Madama Butterfly, staged by members of Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus, Aida is rather disappointing.

Aida runs until April 26

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 29

Faust

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 17

Michael Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Michael Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sir David McVicar’s production of Faust, which premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2004, arrives now at Opera Australia. It’s an impressive staging in its own right – but what makes it especially exciting are the three central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Based on Goethe’s play, Gounod’s 1859 opera tells a classic story of the battle between good and evil, encompassing religion, temptation, sexuality and morality. Faust (Fabiano) is an elderly doctor who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the return of youth. With the help of Mephistopheles (Rhodes), he seduces the beautiful, innocent, religious Marguerite (Car) then abandons her five months later, leaving her pregnant and alone.

When Marguerite’s soldier brother Valentin (Giorgio Caodura) returns from war he is outraged to discover her condition, fights with Faust and, as he lies dying, curses his sister. Imprisoned for killing her child, Marguerite offers fervent prayers to heaven and her soul is saved.

Originally set in 16th century Germany, McVicar has updated it to decadent Paris in the 1870s around the time Gounod wrote it.

His production is darkly dramatic balancing real emotion with lots of tongue-in-cheek touches from gaudy devil’s pitchforks to daemonic ballerinas and Satan in drag. It is staged on an imposing set by Charles Edwards that looms ominously over the action, with towering columns and an organ representing a cathedral, the ornate, crumbling proscenium of a theatre, and a streetscape with Marguerite’s home.

Into this space come the wonderfully hedonistic, debauched nightclub Cabaret L’Enfer in Act II where Faust first meets Marguerite, and a gloomy graveyard with a bleeding, falling crucifix for the Walpurgis Night festivities.

The costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel add flashes of vibrant colour, with plenty of blood red, to the dark setting, while Michael Keegan-Dolan’s witty choreography ranges from a saucy cancan to a diabolical Walpurgis ballet in which classical dancers in white tutus turn feral with rapiers, sexual posturing and daemonic laughter. The dancing is super-sharp.

The OA production (helmed by revival director Bruno Ravella) is blessed with a fine cast. Making his debut as Mephistopheles, Rhodes is in his element. His deep baritone exudes a rich range of colour and his characterisation is devilishly good, playing Satan as a dashing, supercilious, charismatic showman-about-town, who dons a number of different guises including a black, bejeweled ballgown and tiara.

Fabiano, a 30-year old American tenor generating plenty of buzz, has a huge, thrilling voice that soars effortlessly, making the hairs on the back of the neck stand up as he sails to the top of his range. He is also a strong actor, moving convincingly from doddery old man to rejuvenated, dapper chap.

Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – is again radiant. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing has a sweet, luscious beauty and is full of emotion, and she is a beautiful actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. She and Fabiano work together superbly, their voices making for a premium blend.

There is also impressive work from Anna Dowsley as Siebel, Richard Anderson as Wagner, Giorgio Caoduro as Valentin and Dominica Matthews as Marthe. The chorus is in fine form, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra gives a passionate performance of the lush, melodious score under conductor Guillaume Tourniaire.

The production received a huge response from the opening night audience with many on their feet at the end. As for Fabiano and Car, both will doubtless go far. Catch them now while you can.

Faust runs at the Sydney Opera House until March 13

The Chimney Sweep

City Recital Hall, July 5

Stuart Haycock and Amelia Farrugia. Photo: Keith Saunders

Stuart Haycock and Amelia Farrugia. Photo: Keith Saunders

The surtitles before the start of The Chimney Sweep announce the restoration of Salieri’s reputation – and Pinchgut Opera certainly does him proud with this delightful production.

Most people these days would only know Antonio Salieri’s name from the 1984 Academy Award-winning film in which he was depicted as a mediocre composer who poisoned his fierce rival Mozart out of jealousy.

In truth, Salieri was more famous in his day than Mozart and almost certainly did not murder him. But where Mozart is now one of the most performed composers in the world, Salieri’s music is rarely heard.

Thanks to Pinchgut – which dedicates itself to the presentation of rarely seen operas from the 17th and 18th centuries – Sydneysiders have the chance to see the Australian premiere of Salieri’s comic work The Chimney Sweep (Der Rauchfangkehrer). A huge hit when it was first staged in 1781, it all but disappeared after the mid-1800s.

The Chimney Sweep is a rollicking comedy centring on Volpino, a musically gifted chimney sweep who is in love with Lisel, a cook in the household of wealthy widow Mrs Hawk and her stepdaughter Miss Hawk.

Learning that Mr Bear and Mr Wolf have won the lottery and hope to marry the Hawks, Volpino and Liesel cook up a plan to better themselves financially.

Pretending to be an Italian count disguised as a sweep, Volpino uses his musical skills to worm his way into the affections of the Hawks who he then auctions off to Wolf and Bear. From there it spins off into all kinds of comic complications – but as you’d expect it all ends happily.

Right from the start of the overture you can hear the fun in Salieri’s music, emphasised by a quick little leap of joy by Erin Helyard, who conducts the marvellous Orchestra of the Antipodes. The music doesn’t compare to Mozart’s operas (though it is often reminiscent of Mozart) but much of it is lovely and thoroughly enjoyable.

Written as a singspiel in which the musical numbers alternate with dialogue, Pinchgut performs it in English. Director Mark Gaal has translated the dialogue, while Andrew Johnston has translated the lyrics. Both have done a great job. Occasional phrases like “My god, they go ballistic” had the audience chuckling but the translations aren’t so tricksy that they compromise the original 18th century setting.

Gaal has staged a simple but effective production with gorgeous costumes and set by Emma Kingsbury. Performed against a gold wooden backdrop with a huge gargoyle-faced fireplace, and just a few props, Gaal uses signs (flamboyantly displayed by Gary Clementson as the servant Hansel) to announce each new location.

The performers all handle the dialogue and dramatic challenges extremely well, playing the comedy to the hilt, while the ladies really shine vocally. Amelia Farrugia is outstanding as Mrs Hawk and young soprano Janet Todd is also very impressive as Miss Hawk. Together they steal the show.

Stuart Haycock has a fairly light tenor voice but brings plenty of charisma to the role of Volpino. There is strong support from David Woloszko as Mr Bear, Christopher Saunders as Mr Wolf, Alexandra Oomens as Lisel and David Hidden as the master chimney sweep Tomaso, as well as Clementson, Nicholas Hiatt, Troy Honeysett and Sabyrna Te’o as the servants. The Sydney Children’s Choir makes up the cast as Tomaso’s young apprentices.

Overall, The Chimney Sweep is lots of fun and yet another feather in Pinchgut’s already well-covered cap.

The Chimney Sweep has its final performance tonight. Bookings: www.cityrecitalhall.com or 02 8256 2222

Eugene Onegin

Sydney Opera House, February 28

Nicole Car and Dalibor Jenis. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Nicole Car and Dalibor Jenis. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

When Nicole Car went to the wings to lead conductor Guillaume Tourniaire on stage during the opening night curtain call for Eugene Onegin, he dropped to one knee and kissed her hand.

It seemed the perfect acknowledgement of Car’s radiant performance as Tatyana in Tchaikovksy’s passionate, melancholic opera of lost love based on Pushkin’s novel.

Directed by Kasper Holten, the 39-year old Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (where it was first seen last year), the production is being shared by the Royal Opera House, Opera Australia and Fondazione Theatro Regio, Turin.

Overall, the production is thoughtful, deeply moving and passionately performed though there are elements that occasionally jar.

Holten has decided to frame the opera in the memory of the two central protagonists, Tatyana and Onegin, staging it as if they are looking back on their lives: Tatyana’s passionate declaration of love in a letter when they first meet in the country, Onegin’s rejection of her, the duel in which Onegin kills his best friend Lensky, Onegin’s later realisation that Tatyana is the love of his life, and her rejection of him, choosing to remain loyal to her husband Prince Gremin despite her feelings for Onegin.

Holten has two solo dancers playing their younger selves at pivotal points in their relationship, while the singers watch on, either singing or merely observing.

The results are mixed. At times, it feels unnecessary. The emotion is all there in the music anyway and Car, in particular, is such an expressive performer vocally and dramatically that we don’t need a dancer to act out what she is feeling. In the letter scene the dancer is distracting – though it is moving to see the compassion with which Car watches her younger self.

It is also affecting to see Onegin’s younger self emotionally undone by having killed his best friend Lensky in a duel, while Dalibor Jenis stands to one side, bolt upright as he sings, all emotion internalised.

Dance features prominently in the opera, so you can see understand why Holten decided to extend its use. There’s the peasant’s dance, a waltz when Onegin flirts with Tatyana’s sister Olga to punish Lensky, a polonaise and the ball at Prince Gremin’s palace.

Holten’s portrayal of the Act III polonaise is brilliantly done, becoming a sinister evocation of Onegin’s travels through Europe. Surrounded by female dancers, who flirt with him, reject him and die in his arms, it is disturbingly effective.

The simple staging works well for the most part. Mia Stensgaard’s grey set – three sets of towering double doors with bookcases between them, which open to reveal projections of the landscape behind – suits the opening act.

However, the set feels cramped later on, particularly for the ball at Gremin’s palace. This is doubtless in part because of the small Sydney Opera House stage. The problem is compounded by remnants from the past being left on stage to represent memories crowding in on them: a crumpled letter, a broken chair, the branch and snow from the duel scene, and even Lensky’s corpse.

Having Lensky’s body on stage becomes increasingly distracting and in the tight space the branch twice got caught on dresses at the ball.

Katrina Lindsay’s lovely costumes work extremely well. The dark clothes for the peasants and for the socialites create a sense of gloom and doom in the background, against which the red and sparkling white of Tatyana’s dress, royal blue of Onegin’s jacket and turquoise of Olga’s frock stand out.

Making her debut in the role, Car is outstanding as Tatyana. She sings beautifully across her entire range with a gorgeous clarity and expressiveness, while her acting rings deeply true as she moves convincingly from youthful naivety to mature dignity.

Czech baritone Dalibor Jenis gives a powerful performance as Onegin. His dark, burnished voice works well with Car’s and he also brings dramatic nuance to his role, convincingly portraying Onegin’s emotional awakening.

They are well supported by James Egglestone as Lensky, Sian Pendry as Olga, Dominica Matthews as the girl’s socially ambitious mother Madame Larina and Jacqueline Dark as their loving nurse Filippyevna.

Kanen Breen gives a deliciously comic cameo as the French dandy Triquet and Russian bass Konstantin Gorny is extremely impressive as Gremin.

The orchestra does justice to Tchaikovsky’s rich, beautiful, soaring score under Tourniaire’s baton, while the chorus sings superbly.

All in all, despite the odd dramatic distraction, this is a powerful, moving production full of raw passion and aching sadness.

Eugene Onegin runs at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 28. Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….