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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Faust

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 17

Michael Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Michael Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sir David McVicar’s production of Faust, which premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2004, arrives now at Opera Australia. It’s an impressive staging in its own right – but what makes it especially exciting are the three central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Based on Goethe’s play, Gounod’s 1859 opera tells a classic story of the battle between good and evil, encompassing religion, temptation, sexuality and morality. Faust (Fabiano) is an elderly doctor who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the return of youth. With the help of Mephistopheles (Rhodes), he seduces the beautiful, innocent, religious Marguerite (Car) then abandons her five months later, leaving her pregnant and alone.

When Marguerite’s soldier brother Valentin (Giorgio Caodura) returns from war he is outraged to discover her condition, fights with Faust and, as he lies dying, curses his sister. Imprisoned for killing her child, Marguerite offers fervent prayers to heaven and her soul is saved.

Originally set in 16th century Germany, McVicar has updated it to decadent Paris in the 1870s around the time Gounod wrote it.

His production is darkly dramatic balancing real emotion with lots of tongue-in-cheek touches from gaudy devil’s pitchforks to daemonic ballerinas and Satan in drag. It is staged on an imposing set by Charles Edwards that looms ominously over the action, with towering columns and an organ representing a cathedral, the ornate, crumbling proscenium of a theatre, and a streetscape with Marguerite’s home.

Into this space come the wonderfully hedonistic, debauched nightclub Cabaret L’Enfer in Act II where Faust first meets Marguerite, and a gloomy graveyard with a bleeding, falling crucifix for the Walpurgis Night festivities.

The costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel add flashes of vibrant colour, with plenty of blood red, to the dark setting, while Michael Keegan-Dolan’s witty choreography ranges from a saucy cancan to a diabolical Walpurgis ballet in which classical dancers in white tutus turn feral with rapiers, sexual posturing and daemonic laughter. The dancing is super-sharp.

The OA production (helmed by revival director Bruno Ravella) is blessed with a fine cast. Making his debut as Mephistopheles, Rhodes is in his element. His deep baritone exudes a rich range of colour and his characterisation is devilishly good, playing Satan as a dashing, supercilious, charismatic showman-about-town, who dons a number of different guises including a black, bejeweled ballgown and tiara.

Fabiano, a 30-year old American tenor generating plenty of buzz, has a huge, thrilling voice that soars effortlessly, making the hairs on the back of the neck stand up as he sails to the top of his range. He is also a strong actor, moving convincingly from doddery old man to rejuvenated, dapper chap.

Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – is again radiant. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing has a sweet, luscious beauty and is full of emotion, and she is a beautiful actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. She and Fabiano work together superbly, their voices making for a premium blend.

There is also impressive work from Anna Dowsley as Siebel, Richard Anderson as Wagner, Giorgio Caoduro as Valentin and Dominica Matthews as Marthe. The chorus is in fine form, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra gives a passionate performance of the lush, melodious score under conductor Guillaume Tourniaire.

The production received a huge response from the opening night audience with many on their feet at the end. As for Fabiano and Car, both will doubtless go far. Catch them now while you can.

Faust runs at the Sydney Opera House until March 13

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

2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

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

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

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

South Pacific

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, September 12

Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Opera Australia’s South Pacific opened last year it became the most successful production in the history of the Sydney Opera House – and so it’s back, by popular demand, with Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes reprising their starring roles.

They are joined by several new cast members: Gyton Grantley as Luther Billis, Christine Anu as Bloody Mary and Blake Bowden as Lieutenant Cable, all of them terrific.

With its memorable songs and stirring story, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is one of the greatest all of time and Bartlett Sher’s magnificent production, which originated at New York’s Lincoln Centre in 2008, really does make for an enchanted evening.

First performed in 1949, in the wake of World War II, the show’s exploration of war, class and, in particular, racism was radical in its day.

The musical is set on a South Pacific island where the Americans are doing strategic battle with the Japanese. At its heart is Ensign Nellie Forbush (Lisa McCune), a “hick” nurse from Little Rock who falls in love with French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) but must confront her prejudice when she discovers he has fathered two children with a Polynesian woman.

Restaging his production for OA on Michael Yeargan’s elegant sets, Sher gives full rein to the show’s romance and exuberant production numbers but balances this with a gritty truthfulness, ensuring that the show’s serious themes still hit home. Keeping the staging relatively simple, he puts the focus firmly on the characters and the human story they tell rather than razzle-dazzle.

McCune is lovely as Nellie. The warmth, sparkle, playfulness and emotional depth she brings to the role is utterly beguiling, keeping us on Nellie’s side despite her self-confessed small-mindedness. The final scene, when she moves beyond this to accept Emile and his children, is deeply moving while her earlier, high-spirited rendition of I’m Gonna Watch That Man Right Outa My Hair is musical theatre at its most joyous. Her bright voice sounds stronger this time around; it really is a stunning performance.

Appearing in his first musical, Rhodes, who has an international opera career, is sensational as Emile. The role was originally written for opera’s Ezio Pinza and Rhodes’s beautiful, burnished bass-baritone is so rich and powerful that his renditions of Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine are utterly thrilling. What’s more, the chemistry between him and McCune sizzles.

The subplot concerns the educated, courageous Lieutenant Joe Cable (Blake Bowden) who falls in love with Tonkinese girl Liat (Celia Yuen)  – the daughter of Bloody Mary – but knows he could never take her back to America as his wife. Bowden gives a sensitive portrayal, making Cable’s conflicting emotions convincing and understandable, and sings smoothly though his voice sounded slightly tight at the top of his register on opening night.

Making an impressive musical theatre debut, Grantley gives a wonderful robust, endearingly comic performance as the rascally seabee Billis who is sweet on Nellie, while Anu brings plenty of fiery grunt to Bloody Mary in a nuanced performance.

There is strong support from the rest of the company and the energetic ensemble, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra’s performance of the glorious score, under conductor Vanessa Scammell, is a delight.

All in all, this is musical theatre of the highest order, justifying its inclusion in an opera season.

South Pacific plays at the Sydney Opera House until November 2 then in Perth, November 10 – December 6 and Adelaide, December 29 – January 12

Edited versions of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 15, 2013 and in August 2012

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.