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

Advertisements

Atomic

NIDA Parades Theatres, November 18

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

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

The life of Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard, who was involved with the development of the atomic bomb, is a dark but meaty subject for a musical with plenty of emotional and moral complexity.

However, the new musical Atomic – which is currently playing its world premiere season in Sydney – attempts to cover so much ground while telling his story in linear biographical fashion (apart from an opening scene featuring two young Japanese lovers torn asunder as the bomb falls) that it doesn’t have the depth or impact that it might.

Born in 1898 in Hungary to Jewish parents, Szilard trained as a physicist in Germany but was forced to flee the Nazis with his wife-to-be Trude, going first to England and then to America.

Having conceived the idea of nuclear chain reaction in 1933, he patented the first nuclear reactor with Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and was co-opted to work on The Manhattan Project where he was involved with developing the atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan, despite his own grave misgivings.

After World War II, his work included the development of radiation therapy to treat cancer (which he himself suffered) – something that the musical counterpoints with his guilt about the lives lost in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), Atomic traces Szilard’s life from 1933, throwing in such a welter of incidents, characters, themes and ideas that in processing all the information (some of which isn’t really necessary) we aren’t able to focus enough on the character of Szilard, his relationship with the loyal Trude as he puts science ahead of family, or the moral dilemma at the heart of the piece.

Running close to three hours, it feels as if the writers weren’t quite sure how to end it either. Towards the end of the show there’s a powerful song called “What I Tell Myself” about the guilt that all Szilard’s colleagues are feeling as they lie awake at night, then on we go with yet more biographical narrative followed by a ballad for Trude about her love for her husband, which is beautiful but completely out of place at that point.

There’s plenty of interest in there but it needs a tighter focus (a restructure away from straightforward biography perhaps) to really engage you with the characters and themes.

Musically, the score is predominantly rock-based, much of it catchy and some of it rousing. There’s also an Andrews Sisters-like song, clearly inspired by “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” as well as Yiddish and Broadway influences. However, a comic number called “America Amore” sung by Fermi sits oddly – an all-too-obvious bid for light relief that doesn’t come off despite David Whitney’s energetic performance.

For this premiere season, American director Damien Gray helms a well-staged, small-scale production featuring excellent performances by a cast of seven. Neil Patel’s set with its scaffolding and sliding screens that quickly create different spaces as well as moving trains, boats and planes is effective, with dramatic lighting by Niklas Pajanti while Emma Kingsbury’s costumes are terrific.

The actors commit whole-heartedly and do a marvellous job, dealing admirably with sound problems on opening night. Michael Falzon is in fine voice as Szilard and gives a sensitive performance that drives the show emotionally. He is well matched by Bronwyn Mulcahy as Szilard’s wife, who also sings beautifully. Blake Erickson, Simon Brook McLachlan, Lana Nesnas, Christy Sullivan and David Whitney are all excellent in a range of cameos and ensemble roles.

Atomic has enough going for it to see that it has potential. As it stands now, it’s a long night that never quite soars, but it is well worth future development.

Atomic plays at NIDA Parades Theatres until November 30. Bookings: ticketek.com.au or 1300 795 012