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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Noises Off

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 21

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waves of laughter swept through the opening night audience at Sydney Theatre Company’s riotously funny production of Noises Off.

Michael Frayn’s 1982 comic masterpiece is a mind-bogglingly clever feat of construction. Add to that Julie Lynch’s gloriously OTT, psychedelic 70s costumes (which drew applause of their own) and some superb comic performances, and you have a night of laugh-out-loud mayhem.

The farce-within-a farce (which comes with a very funny program-within-a-program) follows a third-rate company of actors as they tour the English provinces with a lame bedroom farce called Nothing On.

Frayn has peopled Noises Off with a rum bunch. There’s the show’s backer Dotty Otley (Genevieve Lemon), a one-time “name” who is playing the housekeeper Mrs Clackett and having an affair with Nothing On’s temperamental leading man, the younger Garry Lejeune (Josh McConville); the somewhat vacant Brooke Ashton (Ash Ricardo), a blonde bombshell who keeps losing her contact lenses and who is having a fling with the philandering director Lloyd Dallas (Marcus Graham); Belinda Blair (Tracy Mann) who tries to keep things on an even keel but loves a good gossip; an elderly dipsomaniac (Ron Haddrick); and the morose, anxious Frederick Fellowes (Alan Dukes) who needs to be given acting motivations for every move his character makes.

Getting/keeping the show on the road are the timid but conscientious assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Danielle King) who is also involved with the director Lloyd, and the sleep-deprived stage manager/general dog’s body Tim Allgood (Lindsay Farris).

Over the course of three acts, we watch the same section of Nothing On as the production gradually disintegrates.

In Act I we see the disastrous dress rehearsal. Act II takes place at a matinee a month later when things are beginning to go wrong – the twist being that it’s shown from backstage. Act III takes place at the end of the tour when hostilities between the actors are spilling onto the stage and everything that could go wrong does.

Act I feels a little slow as Frayn sets everything up but from there on the play is like a runaway train.

The unfolding chaos requires absolute precision – which it gets in Jonathan Biggins’ very fine production, staged on Mark Thompson’s handsome, suitably old-fashioned set complete with the requisite eight doors. The set then spins to show the Spartan backstage area.

Lynch’s costumes are a delight: patchwork bell bottom jeans, patterned flares, clinging polyester shirts, frocks with bold geometric designs and platform boots among other wonderfully colourful outfits.

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Biggins’ has elicited priceless comic performances across the board from his excellent cast but McConville is an absolute standout as Lejeune, his daredevil physicality drawing gasps. Lemon is also a hoot, while Graham is “faded charm” to a tee as the droll, exasperated director.

Beneath all the hilarity there is a dark sense of the absurd and the creeping terror of things spiraling beyond our control. We laugh uproariously but we can’t help but feel for the characters, trapped in an existential theatrical nightmare, much of it of their own making.

Noises Off runs until April 5. Bookings: http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on March 2

The 13-Storey Treehouse

Sydney Opera House

Mark Owen-Taylor and Luke Joslin. Photo: supplied

Mark Owen-Taylor and Luke Joslin. Photo: supplied

Such is the popularity of writer Andy Griffiths’ and illustrator Terry Denton’s children’s book The 13-Storey Treehouse that when the Sydney Opera House programmed a stage production in September it all but sold out before even opening – so a return season was announced quick smart.

It’s not the most obvious book to stage. For starters it’s set in, well, a 13-storey treehouse with a bowling alley, lemonade fountain, see-through swimming pool, man-eating shark tank, vines you can swing on and a secret underground laboratory. And then there are those pesky monkeys, a mermaid/sea monster, a marauding gorilla and a flying cat: all in a fun day’s work in the world according to Andy and Terry but far easier to conjure on the page than the stage.

The premise of the book is that it tells of all the adventures Andy and Terry have when they should be writing their overdue book – adventures, which ultimately become the story of the book.

For the stage production, writer Richard Tulloch gives this meta-joke a theatrical twist. Andy (Luke Joslin) and Terry (Mark Owen-Taylor) arrive at the Sydney Opera House to rehearse a play about the treehouse. The only trouble is they’ve forgotten to write a script or hire any actors and the opening night audience is already in the house.

Their no-nonsense stage manager Val (Sarah Woods) insists that the show must go on. And so with a box of props and a 2D-3D converter that brings drawings to life, they do indeed stage the story of The 13-Storey Treehouse – with the trusty Val agreeing under sufferance to take on the other roles (including the mermaid-sea monster) when they tell her that Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe were unavailable.

Directed by Julian Louis with design by Mark Thompson, lighting by Nicholas Higgins and sound by Jeremy Silver, the show relies on a large dose of imagination from the audience – which is cleverly, dare I say imaginatively, harnessed by the creative team.

However, the production’s success is also due in large part to the all-stops-out performances of Joslin and Owen-Taylor who both bring ripper comic timing and the manic energy of a hypo child to their roles, working their butts off.

There are some brilliant little moments. A drawing competition between Andy and Terry (which as the adults realise includes sleight-of-hand) drew gasps of appreciation from the kids near me, while the gorilla trampling Mr Barky triggered shrieks of laughter.

The 13-Storey Treehouse runs at the Sydney Opera House until January 25. 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.