Giasone

City Recital Hall, Sydney, December 5

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Pinchgut Opera adds immeasurably to Sydney’s operatic life with its annual (and next year, two) productions of a baroque opera.

This year it is staging Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone, first performed in Venice in 1649. Hugely popular in its day, it was revived all over Italy for 40 years.

You can see why. Though the paper-thin plot is somewhat ridiculous, it’s rollicking good fun as well as downright steamy at times – with passion and tragic poignancy too. And the music is glorious.

The story of the opera is loosely based on the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts and the search for the Golden Fleece. In a nutshell, during his quest Jason has seduced and then abandoned Isifile, Queen of Lemnos, despite fathering twin boys with her.

He is now passionately involved with Medea, Queen of Colchis (though he doesn’t know her identity), who uses magic to help him capture the Fleece. When Isifile reappears, Giasone plots her murder but the wrong queen goes over the cliff (leading to one of the funniest lines of the night from Giasone’s personal servant Ercole, “I only kill one queen per day.”)

Medea survives her plunge into the sea and all ends happily (Cavalli doesn’t include her murder of her children with Jason) with Medea returning to former lover Egeo and Jason to Isifile.

Unlike his colleague Monteverdi, Cavalli happily combines grand drama and low comedy in robust fashion, while the music has a dance-like vitality at times as well as a languorous, haunting beauty at others.

The opera originally ran around four hours but conductor Erin Helyard has here trimmed it back to a more manageable two-and-a-half hours including interval. Helyard’s passion for the music is palpable and infectious. He is in constant motion as he conducts, almost dancing as he channels the score while mouthing the words. He’s a joy to watch.

Chas Rader-Shieber who directs and co-designs with Katren Wood helms a deliciously tongue-in-cheek production that makes the most of the comedy while managing to balance it with the underlying passion.

The only moment that doesn’t quite work is when Isifile, expecting to be murdered by Giasone, asks that he kills her slowly but begs that her breasts not be mutilated so that her babies can suckle cold milk at her breast one last time – a gruesome image, but a line that it would be hard to pull off in this day and age. On opening night there was laughter.

The staging is economical but effective with an in-built proscenium, two gauzy curtains, a couple of doors in a back wall, and a few well chosen props. The contemporary costumes work extremely well too.

David Hansen is superb as incorrigible love-rat Giasone. Making an unforgettable, wonderfully camp entrance in a pink bath, naked apart from a few bubbles, he makes a dashingly handsome, charismatic Giasone whether in white naval suit or itty-bitty pink towel.

But even more beautiful is his rich, soaring, shining countertenor: a gorgeous instrument that he uses with great skill and an innate sense of drama. He is also a fine actor and whatever the vicissitudes of the plot, he manages to make them convincing.

Celeste Lazarenko is also in fine, versatile voice as the spirited Medea, well matched with Hansen in their duets. Sexy in her long red gown, she gives a strong performance dramatically, while Miriam Allan brings dignity and stillness to Isifile, singing with a pure, true voice.

The rest of the cast all create vividly drawn, well-sung characters: Andrew Goodwin as Egeo, Medea’s faithful, noble lover, Nicholas Dinopoulos as Giasone’s disapproving servant Ercole, and David Greco as Isifile’s servant Oreste.

In the buffo roles, tenor Adrian McEniery is very funny as the nurse, cross-dressed in a smart two-piece suit with a comically unflattering wig, handbag and hairy legs, while Christopher Saunders does his best with Demo, Egeo’s stammering, hunchback servant, here given a leg calliper – the one character that feels dated.

As the young, lithesome servant Alinda, Alexandra Oomens, who is still studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, shows great promise with a lovely voice.

All in all, it’s a stunning production and another feather in Pinchgut’s already well-covered cap.

There’s one more performance today. Opera lovers shouldn’t miss it.

Giasone plays at City Recital until December 9. Bookings: 02 8256 2222

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Samuel Dundas interview

Samuel Dundas as Marcello in La boheme for Opera Australia. Photo: Branco Gaica

Samuel Dundas as Marcello in La boheme for Opera Australia. Photo: Branco Gaica

Samuel Dundas is an exciting young baritone with Opera Australia, who for the past eight years has been steadily building an impressive career. On the face of it, things couldn’t have been going better.

But last year, while playing the sexually voracious Don Giovanni in an OzOpera tour, Dundas had an intimation that things wasn’t quite right.

“I hit this wall. I just wasn’t happy with my singing and it led to this sequence of events (with me beginning to) understand what was required and probably breaking down a whole bunch of conceptions I had about myself and my talent,” he says candidly.

“Whilst I never would have admitted it, I think I had some very inflated ideas of my skill set because of all the opportunities that had been given to me at a very early age. So in hindsight I think that was me going as far as I was going to go on natural talent without having to really address how I sang, how I thought about singing, technique, all those kinds of things.”

The real wake-up call came not long afterwards when he began coaching sessions for OA’s La bohème, in which he played Marcello in Sydney at the start of this year.

“I think there was a pivotal moment when I had my first coaching for La bohème and the coach said, ‘awful’. She meant that with fantastic honesty and it’s changed my life, let alone changed my perspective on my work and my voice,” says the 30-year old singer.

“Now it’s all I do. I want to talk about singing, I want to think about singing, I want to think about technique, I want to talk to as many people as I can and find out what they do, why they do it and if that’s right for me and apply it in the practice room and slowly but surely evolve.”

Dundas is currently playing the small role of the Gaoler in John Bell’s new production of Tosca for OA, followed soon by Sid in Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring.

Not only has he thrown himself into rehearsals with more passion than ever before but whenever he hasn’t been in the rehearsal room he has been working in a studio at the Opera Centre, often with a vocal coach.

He agrees to an interview during one of his days in the studio. Open and friendly, he talks with great frankness but without grandstanding in any way. Instead, he comes across as genuinely self-effacing.

“Looking back I realise that everything I’d done wasn’t as good as I’d thought it was – and I hope desperately that I’m not an arrogant person and that there are thoughts I would have to myself,” he says. “I would never think ‘oh, I’m amazing!’ or anything like that.”

His newfound commitment began last year as he prepared for La bohème and is clearly paying off, with his performance as Marcello receiving a nomination for Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in an Opera at this year’s Helpmann Awards (announced on July 29).

Dundas grew up in Melbourne. His mother loved music and played a lot of it to him and his brother Toby – who is now the drummer with Australian rock band The Temper Trap.

When he was young Dundas played piano and woodwind instruments but gave it all up for sport. Then when he was 16, his mother heard him singing around the house and suggested he take singing lessons.

“I genuinely didn’t want to do it but she worked at my high school and got the teacher to talk to me. One day we had a lesson and he said, ‘you’ve got to keep going with this’ and it went from there,” says Dundas.

Though his brother always wanted to be a rock star, Dundas says he didn’t consciously choose opera over pop music – it was just the way things turned out.

“Singing wasn’t something I was passionate about,” he says. “I just kind of did it because it was what people wanted me to do. I think my voice was always predisposed to classical music so I ended up going down this path. We joke in the family that Toby is the musician and I’m the cover band.”

He did a music degree, not because he particularly wanted to, but because he got a scholarship. Before he graduated, he was offered work with Opera Queensland where he made his professional debut in 2005. He then spent three years in the Victorian Opera’s Young Artist’s Program before joining OA’s Young Artist’s Program in 2010.

His roles for the company include, among others, Marcello, Fiorello in The Barber of Seville and Moralès in Carmen: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.

Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte. Photo: Branco Gaica

Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte. Photo: Branco Gaica

Last year while playing Guglielmo in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte he was featured on Barihunks, an online blog dedicated to “the sexiest baritone hunks in opera”, which regularly waxes lyrical about Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Dundas admits with a laugh that he worked out “diligently” when he heard “that it would be shirts off” for Cosi.

“For eight months I did everything possible. One side of it is vanity and the other is trying to make the most of any opportunity,” he says.

“Now interestingly enough, I’m beginning to work out that there are some detriments vocally to going to the gym so I don’t go in the same way. I don’t think it necessarily affects people in the same way but certainly since I stopped drinking and going to the gym my voice has changed dramatically.”

He suspects that tighter muscles stop you breathing as well. “But each to your own, you make your choice. I try to stay as fit as possible without lifting too much.”

On his 30th birthday last November he decided to give up alcohol until La bohème opened on New Year’s Eve and then, when he felt so good without it, he decided to keep going until his birthday this year.

Whether it’s that or all the work on his technique, he says he has extended the range of his voice at the top end of his register by several notes.

“I have this quiet calm now that I’m doing all I can. I’m working as hard as I can and I want to play all my cards and leave nothing on the table and see what happens,” he says.

In Tosca – Puccini’s great drama of love, jealousy, sacrifice and betrayal – Dundas plays the Gaoler. It’s a very small role (he is also covering the Sacristan) but he doesn’t mind.

“Any chance to sing anything Puccini wrote makes me happy,” he says.

What’s more, he has relished the opportunity to watch singers like baritone John Wegner (who plays the evil Scarpia) in the rehearsal room.

The production, which is directed by John Bell, is set in the 1940s in Mussolini’s Italy.

“John made his intentions very clear on the first day that the characters were going to be as truthful as possible. I think that’s the way opera is going, so John is probably perfect for a show like this,” says Dundas.

“It’s a great opportunity to work with somebody who has a vast amount of experience and is very diligent and calculating in the way he creates character so in terms of a learning experience, it’s wonderful.”

In August, Dundas plays Sid in Britten’s musically complex but frolicsome opera Albert Herring. Set in an English village in Suffolk, a shy lad called Albert is crowned May Queen (or King) because none of the girls are considered virtuous enough.

Sid, meanwhile, is a butcher’s assistant who enjoys pre-marital sex with his girlfriend Nancy. He urges Albert to break free of his dominating mother and when Albert is crowned, slips rum into his lemonade sending Albert off on a night of debauchery.

“He’s kind of the one who sets up all the trouble,” says Dundas. “He is the ultimate contradiction (to Albert) because it’s a morality tale. I think that’s the great thing about being a baritone. You are always the bad guy or the cheeky one. I think it is so much more interesting to play those characters than being the good guy.”

Tosca plays at the Sydney Opera House until August 31; Albert Herring plays August 16 – 30. 

Post Script, July 29: It has just been announced that Samuel Dundas has won the Opera Foundation’s New York Scholarship and will be heading to the Big Apple to study with coaches there.

The Force of Destiny: review

Opera Australia, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 29

 

Svetla Vassileva as Leonora. Photo: Prudence Upton

Svetla Vassileva as Leonora. Photo: Prudence Upton

Death stalks Verdi’s dark, doom-laden, four-act opera The Force of Destiny (La forza del destino) as does the hand of fate – here made visible through the figure of the fortune-teller Preziosilla.

It’s an imaginative and effective device by director Tama Matheson, who has Preziosilla haunting the three central characters – Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo. Forever watching them, she intervenes at times, notably at the pivotal moment of Alvaro and Leonora’s elopement when she pushes Don Alvaro’s hand so that he accidentally shoots and kills Leonora’s father, setting the tragedy in motion.

Set in 18th century Spain and Italy during the Wars of the Austrian Succession, Verdi tells the story of forbidden love and honour killing against a background of war, also interweaving themes of religion and sex.

The love between Don Alvaro (son of a Spanish father and Peruvian princess) and Leonora only blossoms briefly. Separated when they elope, each believes the other dead for most of the opera. They don’t meet again until the tragic finale when – restoring Verdi’s original ending – Don Alvaro, Leonora and her avenging brother Don Carlo all die.

Matheson and designer Mark Thompson have created a mostly magnificent, visually dark production to match the bleak spirit of Verdi’s opera. On a black stage with tapestry-like backcloths, huge icons are used to create bold stage images.

It opens with a giant, gleaming skull and Preziosilla and the chorus holding similar masks as if at an underworld masked ball.

There’s also an enormous Madonna symbolising the monastery, the hermit’s cave where Leonora takes sanctuary for eight, lonely years, and various staircases and platforms around them.

In the first two acts, some of the scene changes feel a little clunky as things are moved around, notably the Madonna, which wobbles slightly as it is wheeled forwards. The massive scale and gaudiness of the religious statue also feels a bit overdone, representing as it does a small, out-of-the-way monastery.

In another scene, it takes ages for rows of candles to be pushed into place – though it looks beautiful when they are finally set.

But from there on, the production moves seamlessly and the distraction of earlier scene changes dissipates. Overall, however, the staging is marvellous, creating a visceral, dramatic environment seething with foreboding, enhanced by Nigel Levings’ gloomy lighting.

The final image of blood pouring from the crucified Christ’s side onto the giant skull below, flanked by walls of skeletons, is a resonantly powerful, disturbing one.

Thompson’s richly detailed, period costumes add flashes of colour to the darkness, in particular Preziosilla’s red, gold and black dress with its layers of lace and netting.

There’s a striking moment in the first act when Leonora’s maid helps her out of an ornate gown with enormous pannier into simple clothes for the elopement – which speaks reams about the power and status of clothing.

Heavy, dark eye make-up for many of the performers adds to the sense of the characters being haunted and doomed.

 

Jonathan Summers, Rinat Shaham and Riccardo Massi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Jonathan Summers, Rinat Shaham and Riccardo Massi. Photo: Prudence Upton

The casting is splendid. As Don Alvaro, Riccardo Massi appears slightly awkward to begin with but once he warms up sings with stirring passion and an effortless, soaring beauty.

Svetla Vassileva is radiant as Leonora, with a rich, clear, agile soprano, while her acting is equally expressive and poignant.

Jonathan Summers uses his dark baritone to convincingly portray Don Carlo, Leonora’s unlikable brother who is hell-bent on revenge, believing that his sister has dishonoured their family.

There are also vivid performances by Rinat Shaham as the gypsy Preziosilla, Warwick Fyfe as the grouchy, impatient Franciscan Fra Melitone, who resents dispensing charity to the poor, Richard Anderson as Leonora’s father the Marchese di Calatrava, Giacomo Prestia as the generous Padre Guardiano and Kanen Breen as a pedlar.

Andrea Licata conducts the orchestra with a spirited sense of urgency.

The Force of Destiny is a long opera, running three and a half hours with two intervals, but this powerful, new production keeps you in its grip and lingers in the mind.

The Force of Destiny runs until July 23.