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

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The Lysicrates Prize

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Royal Botanic Garden, January 30

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney after Premier Mike Baird announced the winner of the first Lysicrates Prize.From left:  Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden. From left: Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, NSW Premier Mike Baird, and John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

The inaugural Lysicrates Prize for new Australian playwriting was to have taken place in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden on the Band Lawn near the replica of the original Choragic Monument of Lysicrates that gives the competition its name.

It would have been a lovely spot for such an event. However, torrential rain earlier in the week left the grass too wet for the seating stand, so the play readings took place in Verbrugghen Hall. Guests then walked down to the lawn for the announcement of the prizewinner by NSW Premier Mike Baird.

The Lysicrates Prize calls for Australian playwrights to submit the first act of a new play. The three short-listed submissions are given a rehearsed play-reading in front of an invited audience. What sets this Prize apart from any other Australian playwriting award is that the audience decides the winner – as happened in Ancient Greece. The prize is a $12,500 commission from Griffin Theatre Company, with the runners-up receiving $1000 each.

The three finalists for the inaugural 2015 Lysicrates Prize were Steve Rodgers, Lally Katz and Justin Fleming, with Rodgers awarded the prize for his play Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.

It all began early in 2014 when John and Patricia Azarias, the founders of the Prize, took a walk through the Botanic Garden.

John Azarias loves Hellenic culture and had seen the original monument in Athens. On that particular day, as he and his wife approached the sandstone replica (commissioned in 1870 by Sir James Martin), they were struck by how eroded it was becoming. He decided then and there to raise the funds for its restoration in readiness for the Botanic Garden’s bicentenary in 2016.

The original monument was built by a rich sponsor (or choregoi) called Lysicrates to celebrate the winning play at the Dionysia Festival in Athens in 334 BC, as was the tradition during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The monument has a frieze featuring Dionysus, the god of theatre. In a nice little link, the name ‘Sydney’ is an English version of the French ‘St Denis’, which in turn is a Gallic version of ‘St Dionysius’ – as John explained in his welcoming speech.

Patricia suggested that they also establish a theatre competition associated with the monument as a way to celebrate its restoration. They approached Lee Lewis at Griffin Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the performance of Australian plays, who agreed to run the competition. With some assistance from the NSW Government, along with additional funds raised by John, and the support of the Royal Botanic Garden, they were off.

For the first Lysicrates Prize, an audience made up of Griffin supporters and subscribers, politicians and theatre industry folk gathered at the Conservatorium to watch readings (rehearsed over three days) of the three short-listed plays.

Entering the auditorium, audience members were each given a gold coin with which to cast our vote in large pottery urns.

Rodgers’ Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam is adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novella and is a haunting story of suffocating love, grief and loss, and a family so close that the parents made an extreme decision when their young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia; a decision their son will struggle to understand.

Darren Yap – who approached Rodgers in the first place about a stage adaptation – directed the extract, which was performed by Jennifer Hagan, Anthony Harkin, Natalie O’Donnell, Rodgers himself and Govinda Röser-Finch.

The emotional scenario and complex moral dilemma posed clearly struck a chord with the audience.

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Rodgers said of his win: “Jesus Wants me For a Sunbeam isn’t a play yet. It’s just a bunch of scenes and ideas adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novel. But because of The Lysicrates Prize, we now get the chance to develop it into a truly important new Australian play. I’m over the moon.

“Philanthropy of this kind in Australia isn’t common, so obviously I’m more than thrilled. This play is about family and explores a kind of love that in one moment you’re completely in sympathy with, and the next, you’re reeling away from in horror. The Lysicrates Prize gives us the chance, to hopefully unleash all that familial complexity on an audience.”

The evening began with Lally Katz’s Fortune, directed by Kate Gaul and performed by Briallen Clarke, Anni Finsterer, Sean Hawkins and Russell Kiefel.

The black comedy is set in a seedy hotel in the US where the woman who owns it has asked a psychic with a crystal ball to tell her about a man who spent time in one of the rooms. The Romany fortune-teller is pregnant and she and her cowboy boyfriend desperately need money to start a new life on his father’s land. Meanwhile, two men who have just lost their Wall Street jobs in the GFC are waiting to book into the hotel: one of them has been around the block, the other is a young Australian who had only just joined the company. It’s an intriguing set-up, the characters are all fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

The night wound up with Justin Fleming’s The Savvy Women, another of his rollicking, contemporary Australian adaptations of Molière, following his success with Tartuffe and The School for Wives.

Directed by Gale Edwards, and performed by Andrea Demetriades, Morgan Powell, Fiona Press and Christopher Stollery, it began with two sisters vying for one man, their parents arguing over which daughter should prevail, and the mother’s sacking of the maid for her massacre of the English language. Fleming’s clever, witty rhymes drew much laughter, especially the maid’s bogan utterings.

Having the audience choose is a different way of commissioning a play these days. The proof will be in the production. But you’d have to say it was an impressive, well-chosen short list. All three extracts were entertaining and showed significant potential; hopefully we will get to see productions of them all in the fullness of time.