Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers

The Vanguard, December 16

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Jeff Busby

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Jeff Busby

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen describe themselves as the “oddest of odd couples in opera in Australia”.

Colleagues at Opera Australia, she is a mezzo-soprano who has just played Meg Page in Verdi’s Falstaff in Melbourne and whose roles next year include Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida; he is a tenor best known for comic and character roles, who starts next year as Monostatos in The Magic Flute in Sydney.

Off-stage they have a close relationship, which they have discussed openly in recent media interviews, as a straight woman and gay man raising a son together (though he is not the biological father).

Now, as Strange Bedfellows, they are performing in their first cabaret show together, Under the Covers, which celebrates their relationship and gives vent to their wicked sense of humour and broad musical taste.

Clad in skimpy, sexy outfits, the prevailing vibe is 1930s Weimar cabaret: dark, decadent and deliciously bawdy. It’s pretty out-there on a couple of occasions, with a song about a paedophile watching a young girl on a slide and another about a ménage à trois involving a family pet, but mostly it’s full of mischievous fun.

Under the musical direction of Daryl Wallis, resplendent in sparkling red jacket on the keyboard, they’ve chosen a wonderful eclectic choice of repertoire ranging from Amanda Palmer to Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill with smatterings of INXS, Tiny Tim, Rolf Harris (Jake the Peg) and a few operatic references.

Naturally they both sing superbly. Highlights for me included the more personal moments: Breen’s take on Is That All There Is? about growing up as a gay man and a song that Dark wrote about trying to get pregnant using IVF.

The show would be even better if it had a slightly stronger framework, and if their patter early on gave us the chance to get to know them a little better and therefore connect with them more – particularly for those who don’t know a great deal about them.

However, they both exude oodles of stage presence. Dark is warmly engaging, while Breen with his fascinatingly complex, ambiguous charisma is absolutely in his element.

They ended the show touchingly with Rickie Lee Jones’s We Belong Together to rapturous applause. Under the Covers won’t be to everyone’s taste but for those who love a little salacious fun allied with wonderful musicianship it’s a great night out.

Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers returns to The Vanguard in Sydney on January 3 & 4, then plays at the Butterfly Club in Melbourne, February 18–22.

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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

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.