A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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Romans and Christians

I have a confession to make. Yesterday, at the first night of Pinchgut Opera’s Theodora, I did something I frequently do at concerts, but not at operas. I didn’t intend to, but I couldn’t resist. Yes, I admit it. I closed my eyes.

Pinchgut Opera presents Theoroda

Theodora in rehearsal. Andrew Collis, as president of Antioch, lays down the law. (Photographer: Robert Catto)

It wasn’t that there was nothing to see on stage. Handel’s Theodora is actually an oratorio, rather than an opera, but there is plenty of drama and character to work with, and director Lindy Hume is a genius at choreographing singing actors. She picked just the right scale and weight of movement for the moment, whether it was a collective hand up to the heavens, or an individual drunken shimmy. Likewise, Dan Potra’s design matched in size and simplicity the big, archetypal questions being asked by the story, and his costumes were an elegant response to the drama of duality. (Actually, the coloured hands were a bit spooky, but very clever…). The main challenge for staging was that this is a show where all the real action is in the music.

The story of Theodora and Didymus is adapted from Robert Boyle’s novel The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus of 1687. It’s set in Antioch in the 4th Century AD and, as Lindy Hume comments in her director’s notes, it’s a classic clash of civilizations moment. The Roman president decrees that everyone must pay homage to Juno. The Christians don’t want to, so they have to die. Sorry if that gives the ending away, but this is not a drama fuelled by suspense, nor yet by the hope of a happy ending.

The real driver of this work is the extraordinary writing for solos, duets and chorus, and that’s my excuse for closing my eyes. Because, once it became clear that Theodora and Didymus were doomed, I couldn’t resist turning my attention to Handel’s music. There was so much to hear. The orchestral scoring, for a start. Pinchgut is rightly proud of its specially commissioned instruments, funded by an enlightened bunch of supporters, and we got to hear many of them last night. The chamber organ, for example, and the latest addition to the stable, the mighty contrabassoon. The underpinning of the orchestral textures with the low, farty rasp of this colossal instrument made me grin every time I heard it. And the bass line wasn’t the only star. I was completely transfixed by Mikaela Oberg’s wraithlike flute solo, stripped of vibrato, even of tapering, just raw sound.


Valda Wilson

As for the singers, the standard was as impressive as ever. In the title role was Valda Wilson, making a spectacular debut with Pinchgut in a fiendishly challenging role, not because of the vocal fireworks, but because of the rich, centred delivery, a perfect match for her characterisation. Her female foil, Caitlin Hulcup, as leader of the Christians, radiated compassion. Andrew Collis was a suitably hateful Valens, whipping up the crowd into an orgy of drunken hate. Ed Lyon returned (after his Pinchgut debut in the comedy L’Amant Jaloux last year) as the unwilling executioner. Lyons voice sounds like it might have two gears at the moment — a lyric tenor and something more helden-like. This sometimes made for an unstable sound as he transitioned through the register, but also suggests exciting potential for future roles. Finally, counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey played Didymus, the Christian convert who sacrifices himself to save Theodora. To be honest, I blame Lowrey for the whole eye-shutting thing. His aria, ‘The raptur’d soul defies the sword’, was so arresting, in terms of its sound, that I couldn’t help myself. That opening phrase, the long held note on ‘raptur’d’ was so complex, so easy and yet pained, and revealing more with every ritornello. All the suspense, in just one note.

I can’t finish without throwing a few more bouquets. Erin Helyard, the able spider weaving all the threads together from his position in the heart of the orchestra; the chorus, who deserve a review all of their own; and Liz Nielsen, founding Chair of the Board, whose vision, energy and extraordinary generosity has brought Pinchgut to where it is today. You have made something beautiful, Liz. Thank you.

Theodora runs till December 6 at City Recital Hall in Sydney. It’s being broadcast ‘almost live’ on Sunday December 4 on ABC Classic FM.

This blog is a labour of love. If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.

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Porgy and Bess

crowded-houseIt was a crowded house last night. Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, an all-star cast and a packed Concert Hall within. And without, all of Bennelong Point swarming with people either inside the enclosure, on the steps, or outside, straining to see over / under / through the barriers cutting out the view.

I don’t know how the Crowded House concert was, but Porgy and Bess was great. David Robertson, Sydney Symphony’s chief conductor and artistic director, set the orchestra bowling down Catfish Row at a terrific lick, and the energy just kept coming.

It was billed as ‘semi-staged’, which can mean anything from soloists waving a prop here and there to full on fight scenes. This production, directed by Mitchell Butel, made space for the action and the music with a generous apron stage built out into the stalls but, apart from this infrastructure, mainly let the cast do their job. What a cast. What a job.


Alfred Walker

The cast was as close to ideal as it is feasible to expect: a tight knit ensemble of artists with serious vocal chops, winning stage presence and some nifty dance moves. Alfred Walker is a seasoned Porgy (with a side-line in Wotan, Bluebeard and Erik), and Nicole Cabell is a supremely classy Bess, with a creamy upper register which can take on an intense edge when required. Eric Greene is a genuinely scary Crown and Leon Williams catches the youthful vigour of Jake with bittersweet charm. Karen Slack and Gwendolyn Brown, as Serena and Maria, own the stage in their numbers. As Clara, Julia Bullock wins all hearts with her opening Summertime, switching up the octave at the end with sybaritic ease. Finally, Jermaine Smith must be of the world’s great Sporting Lifes. Oozing with charm, it’s hard to take your eyes or ears off him when he is on stage, and in ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ he has the entire choir – no – the entire auditorium – eating out of his hand. (Can he sing Loge to Alfred Walker’s Wotan, pretty please?)

Of course, being a semi-staged production, there was also plenty to see behind the main action. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra glittered and whumped and muddled a bit but generally kept in and out of the way as required under the deft direction of Robertson. Behind them, off into the distance, was the 100-strong chorus provided by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. For such a large group of choristers they were impressively responsive – right time, right dynamic, right pitch, for every entry, with none of the rhythmic or dynamic lag you can get with a large choir. They also appeared to be having a really good time, responding to Sporting Life’s increasingly outrageous challenges with enthusiasm.

All in all, a grand night at the house, hearing a work which doesn’t get out to play nearly as often as it deserves. The only quibble was the decision to pass up on surtitles: the quality of the (amplified) voices was magnificent, so big thumbs up to the sound designer, but even where I was sitting, in the stalls, the words were only partially audible and I suspect further back they would have been lost in the glorious welter of sound. The music made up for a lack of clarity, but the story-telling suffered.

There are three more performances of Porgy and Bess, on this Friday, Saturday and Sunday 1, 2 and 3 December. Go.

If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.






mirabile dictu

mouseplayLast week I interviewed Lorenza Borrani, leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and co-founder of Spira Mirabilis. Yesterday I heard her play. It was a bit good*.

Borrani is in Australia as guest leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, filling in for artistic director Richard Tognetti, who is resident at the Barbican Centre in London this month. With them she does a national tour of “Beethoven’s Favourite”, a program including his String Quartet in C-Sharp minor, Op. 131 in a string ensemble arrangement.

The program opened with Borrani as soloist in Schnittke’s Sonata for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (1968). Schnittke, who at the time of writing was a member of the Union of Composers in the former Soviet Union, wrote this work in the state-required serial idiom. Theoretically. Apparently the tone rows are there if you want to do a structural analysis, but they are completely upstaged by the kaleidoscope of lush chords, soulful lines, spiky rhythms, fascinating timbres and, above all, a sense of serious play. A great match, then, for this questing soloist and her willing band. Notwithstanding the fact that her shoulder rest fell off just before the final cadenza, Borrani borranigave it a gripping performance** — the kind of performance where you forget she’s playing the violin or, for that matter, that you are listening to the ACO, and just get lost in listening.

The Beethoven is the culmination of the ACO’s year long exploration of his late quartets. A long and strange journey which has brought them to a very special place. From the opening phrase — on one violin, then many, then on viola, cello, and bass… — they projected an intense and coherent vision. I’m not just talking about well-matched articulation and phrasing, or tight ensemble. And I’m also not talking about playing as one: the sound was rich and full of complexity, a collection of individuals. What impressed me was the singularity of the vision: a feeling that they shared a deep understanding of this expansive piece of thinking. That, and the sustained nature of this vision: in a 40 minute work you expect an orchestra to let the reins loose every so often, and it’s not as if the work doesn’t invite this at times — it’s by no means all angst and counterpoint. But even in the lyrical second movement, or the playful finale, they maintained an almost palpable tension. Like holding your breath for 40 minutes. Very special. I hope they recorded it.

Between Schnittke and Beethoven they played a set of Schubert Minuets and Trios. Just a few little dances. Vienna in eight bar phrases. Extra Ordinary Schubert. Extraordinary Schubert. Seriously, though, what could have been an unassuming little filler was one of the night’s big revelations. In this collection of five minuets and six trios Schubert somehow manages to explore an amazing range of timbres and emotions, and all within the tight confines of a dance structure. The D minor trio, for example, where the first violins sounded like liquid gold; or the Minuet in C, bursting with character one moment, then disappearing into a passage so quiet that you wondered if you were imagining it. The band played like a dream, like the music was being invented spontaneously, fresh and new. I liked it.***

There’s one more performance in Sydney plus four more in Wollongong, Canberra and Melbourne over the next four days. Richard Tognetti’s back for the ACO’s final tour for the year but in the meantime, the mice are playing magnificently.

*understatement #1

**understatement #2

***understatement #3

There’s more to read and explore at my author’s page at Unbound, where I’m crowdfunding a book on Dartington International Summer School. Do go and see! Do pledge! There are lots of rewards for supporters, not least the book, but also concert tickets, music criticism workshops and goodies from the archive.


Selling opera


I’ve started so many blogs commenting on how opera is faring in Australia. Here’s the start of yet another…

Last Friday Mumbrella published a post covering a presentation on Opera Australia’s rebrand, given by its head of marketing and tourism, John Quertermous. According to Quertermous, he knows what we want. We want experiences.  We want to feel that delicious shiver down our spine as the leading man clasps the leading lady in his arms, as we see the price of the Champagne Methodoise. That quickening of the pulse as we realise the drink is poisoned, or when we spot another person across the foyer wearing the same dress as us. That warm glow of delight as the violins soar and the hero wins the prize. Or when our instagram photo of arriving at the Opera House registers 73 likes.

I never finish them because I’m worried a) it’ll come out all bitter and twisted or b) I won’t say anything new or c) it’ll be boring or d) all of the above.

The bottom line, for me, is that I hate the creeping reductionism of this kind of thinking. It’s the same kind of thinking that makes pop groups like Flight Facilities hire Melbourne Symphony Orchestra then enter their record in the Classical section of the Aria Awards. (It worked). Looking for the buttons to push, being driven by a desired reaction, rather than an internal vision. Call me romantic, call me wibbly lefty dreamer, but surely art is about being brave, not cynical?

The other thing that worries me about the ‘entertainment’ tactic is that OA have been trying it for a number of years, and I’m not sure I can see much success. Ticket sales are down, productions are down, and the Opera Review expressed clear frustration with the company’s lurch towards a narrower, more populist bill of fare.  And doing this while other sections of the music community are seeking success by finding a lesser-spotted niche…

Not sure whether this is a), b), c) or d. But I do hope Opera Australia is not thinking of entering the Arias Awards in the entertainment category. It’s already quite crowded.

In the mean time, good luck to all for the Melbourne Ring Cycle. Good old fashioned entertainment. Or something like that.

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Ring Ring

To celebrate the start of this year’s Melbourne Ring Cycle, here’s my review of the 2013 cycle, which appeared originally in The Opera Critic.

And so it arrives. The Ring Cycle, flagged as a key piece of Lyndon Terracini’s artistic directorship when he took up the position in 2007, and secured with the munificence of Maureen Wheeler and a host of other visionaries putting their money where their mouth is, is here, happening, in Melbourne. Has all the work, the expense, the wait been worth it for this, Opera Australia’s first complete, staged Ring Cycle?

Yes. A thousand times yes. As with any megalomaniacal 16-hour theatrical endeavour there is plenty to poke and prod as well as praise, but the Melbourne Ring Cycle is worth the wait in gold.


Dominica Matthews, Jane Ede & Lorina Gore as The Rhinemaidens with the Sea of Humanity in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

A huge part of the success of this cycle lies with the director. Regietheater has been the bane of many a Wagnerian reinterpretation, but in Neil Armfield Wagner has found a searching interpretor and studious listener who overlays his own view of the legend with utmost delicacy. Armfield’s greatest asset in the Wagnerian arms race of theatrical whizzbangery is his eye for detail. His approach works on many levels, tossing little in-the-know clues to the rusted-on ringnuts, while at the same time telling the story with the pace and humanity of a child’s bedtime story.

There are elements in this Ring which will be familiar to anyone who has seen Armfield’s work (which includes three Britten operas for Opera Australia and the acclaimed premiere season of Brett Dean’s Bliss). He’s a sucker for quirky anachronisms: if you look closely at the pile of ingots in Das Rheingold you can see they are iPhone boxes; and the ‘ping’ of Mime’s microwave announces that dinner is ready. ‘Spot the contemporary reference’ is an old Armfield joke, but a good one, which works particularly well in the fantastical world of Wagnerian archetypes.

Armfield’s other signature style has been described as ‘poor man’s theatre’, an approach which eschews literalism and cinematic detail in favour of bare stages and imagination. With Wagner’s music providing such a rich and complex narrative, it makes a great deal of sense. When Brunnhilde and Siegfried consummate their love on a bare mattress they don’t need actual fireworks to signal their joy, while with Wotan and Brunnhilde’s father-daughter chat in Die Walkure a bare stage lets the intense tangle of philosophy and emotion play out just through the words and music.

That’s not to say that this cycle looks like it is done on the cheap. In Das Rheingold the gods convene to discuss their home renovations in front of a magnificent backdrop – a reproduction of Bayreuth’s first backdrop – destined to be shredded by the giants. (A few operas later the Norns attempt to repair it.) The waters of the Rhine are created from a writhing mass of human figures on a giant revolve, reflected in a huge mirror suspended above the stage, in a kind of Busby Berkeley meets Hieronymus Bosch scene. And the crossing of the rainbow bridge features all the feathers, sequins and long legs of the Folies Bergere. And so on, throughout the cycle, spectacular set pieces, from trapdoors and trapezes to flying zoos and flames, punctuate the action with a visual ‘wow’ factor to match the vocal pyrotechnics.

But while they are a fitting accompaniment to Wagner’s expansive musical scene-setting, some of the real highlights are less showy. You can almost see the excuses, the slick lines and backstories being calculated on the fly in Loge’s mind as Project Valhalla goes off track. Hagen’s face turns from a fixed grin to a death stare with choreographic precision as his brother dobs him in. And, my personal favourite, Alberich allows himself a triumphant little skip to the rhythm of the anvils when he trumps Wotan. These are the kind of details which make the story come to life.

As for the music, it more than serves the story: it is the story.

With a standing army – the well-respected Orchestra Victoria – of only 60 musicians, Opera Australia has had to assemble an international team to make Wagner’s score sing in the pit. The 90-strong Melbourne Ring Orchestra is, in effect, a festival orchestra, with all the advantages and disadvantages of such a beast: there is a palpable excitement at the sheer beauty of the music as it unfolds, but also a slightly precarious feel to some of the more complex passages. Rather than creating a sense of danger, it comes across as a very pragmatic reading: conductor Pietari Inkinen – remember that name, he’s brilliant, he’ll be back — keeps an incredibly tight ship but does not push the tempos (in either direction), resulting in a sound which is fundamentally gorgeous, but occasionally lacks the range of tone colours and extremes – in dynamics and tempi – which a more experienced ensemble might experiment with. The Ride of the Valkyries hangs together by the skin of its teeth, the fire music tends to be stately rather than scintillating, and by the last Gotterdammerung of the season, ragged edges begin to show in the recitative and exposed brass entries. It is, however, a huge achievement for an ensemble, many of whom are playing this repertoire for the first time, and they received a richly deserved ovation as they gathered on stage for the final curtain call.

And so to the vocal performances. Opera Australia is an ensemble company, and it is good to see a cast assembled almost entirely from its ranks. There has been a little shuffling of names amongst the international imports in the run up to the rehearsal period, but the final casting of Wotan, Siegfried and Brunnhilde is impressive.

Terje Stensvold’s Wotan is a joy: a rich, buttery baritone with a gritty rasp in the lower registers is coupled with a glorious sense of line and a stage presence which grows in power through the first three episodes. Oh to be rocking the sunglasses and topless look at 70!

Susan Bullock’s Brunnhilde is more elusive. She has a magnificent instrument, and throughout Die Walkure it feels like she is holding plenty in reserve: her wild ‘hojotoho’s hang in the air like an unrealised threat. By Gotterdammerung, however, the full range of her voice is evident. Her Brunnhilde is a scary woman scorned, and a desperately noble wife as she takes her place on the funeral pyre.


Stefan Vinke as Siegfried & Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

As for Siegfried, Stefan Vinke manages the impossible, by making the feckless hero almost likeable. It’s a spirited and nuanced performance of a damaged child warrior who realises the duplicity of the human race only moments before his death. Watching that realisation sink in is one of the most poignant moments in the whole show.

Vocally, Vinke makes a beautiful sound about 98% of the time. A pesky 2% of the time he veers towards shouting or gives the impression of tiring, but then his tone bounces back with a radiance all the more brilliant for its momentary absence. In a role of this magnitude, it is a splendid result, and he is never stronger, musically and dramatically, than in the final act of Gotterdammerung.


Jud Arthur as Hunding, Miriam Gordon-Stewart as Sieglinde & Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

The other roles reach a consistently high standard, notwithstanding some underpowered deities in Das Rheingold and some wayward Valkyries. Most affecting is the intense duet of Siegmund – the impeccable Stuart Skelton, showing us all how it should be done – and, as Sieglinde, the astonishing Miriam Gordon-Stewart. A big voice with far to go.

Deborah Humble gives us a memorable Erde and Waltraute, while Rhinemaidens Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews manage to wiggle and pout through the tricksiest of trios. As Fasolt and Fafner, neither Judd Arthur nor Daniel Sumegi quite find form in Das Rheingold. Their time comes later. Sumegi is a terrifying Hagen, with stony face and a gunmetal grey voice dipping effortlessly into the lowest registers. For Judd Arthur, his Fafner in Siegfried is less about the voice (which is appropriately amplified when he sings from within his lair) and more about the performance. In a stunning scene, which has little to do with dragons but everything to do with transformation, his face is projected, in monstrous technicolour, onto the backdrop as he applies the black eyes and bloody grin of a naked evil clown. Respect.

Back in Valhalla, Jacqui Dark sings her first Fricka with growing confidence. The more complex the emotions, the more she finds in the music, positively blooming in her fraught scene with Wotan in Die Walkure. Hye Seoung Kwon is a convincing Freia, Sharon Prero is a wonderfully hysterical Paris Hilton Gutrune, and, as the Woodbird, Taryn Fiebig lights up the stage with her bright soprano, matching her glittering dress and livewire physical presence.

Some of the strongest acting comes in the lesser roles, notably Richard Berkeley Steele as an always calculating Loge and Graeme MacFarlane, who absolutely nails the character of Mime as the fussy, bitter old craftsman who everyone loves to kick.


Warwick Fyfe as Alberich in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

Finally, the stand out performance of the cycle must be Warwick Fyfe’s Alberich. The role went to Fyfe less than three weeks out from opening when a health problem forced John Wegner to withdraw. It is a tribute to both Fyfe and to Opera Australia’s reportedly meticulous preparation of covers that he didn’t just step in. He owned it.

This was a fascinating performance which crackled with detail – his gait, his facial ticks and, in Gotterdammerung, even the way he held his hands. When the Rhinemaidens pulled his shirt over his head, exposing his middle-age spread, the audience gasped at his unflinching vulnerability. As the showman in charge of the Tarnhelm he was maniacally delightful. But most of all, when he opened his mouth to sing a gorgeous sound, skilfully articulated, phrased with the utmost sophistication and unerring tonal aim came forth. It was a revelation, and it deserved the audience’s unreserved ovation.

There are many more contributors who deserve a mention: a shout out to assistant director Kate Champion, whose choreography proved that ordinary people can dance to Wagner, and lighting designer Damien Cooper, who directed our gaze to the right place at the right time. And, ultimately, Lyndon Terracini for starting this whole crazy adventure.

Every Ring Cycle, no matter where it takes place in the world, is a triumph of ingenuity over impracticality, and everyone involved in creating Wagner’s great work can count themselves heros. But I can’t help feeling that the Melbourne Ring Cycle has been a little bit special.

The 2016 Melbourne Ring Cycle begins with Das Rheingold on November 21. Toi toi toi to all taking on this massive challenge. I wish I could be there!

In case you were wondering, given my chequered history with Opera Australia, I did not get freebies to see the Ring. In fact, I paid $2000. I don’t get paid anything for writing this blog, but if you think it’s worth something and would like me to write more please take a look at Sanctuary, crowd-funding now on Unbound. I take cash, credit and Rheingold. 


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Harbour Light

The night before  Tony Abbott was elected prime minister I went to the Sydney Opera House to hear Lior and the Sydney Symphony. And the night of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, I find myself at the Opera House again, for Acacia Quartet‘s concert, entitled ‘Harbour Light’, in the Utzon Room. Music, as ever, is a consolation.

acacia_all_printThe Acacias have worked hard over the six years since they first came together, and achieved much. There have been five CDs and three ARIA nominations. More importantly, there have been any number of commissions, collaborations and deep dives into the music of here and now. This concert was no exception: a bold program of new works by Australian composers Sally Whitwell, Nick Wales and Joe Twist alongside three works by Philip Glass, George Gershwin and Bernard Herrmann.

I’ve mostly experienced Nick Wales’ music as underscore or music for dance, but on the evidence of this work, it more than fills the stage on its own. Harbour Light has a wonderful sense of pace and drama, like a brilliantly written four-hander. Wales originally wrote it for string ensemble but, at after nagging from the Acacia Quartet, adapted it here for four voices. Their instincts were good. The lush and complex string textures are still there when the music needs it, but the individual gestures shine out.

‘Face to the Sun’ is Sally Whitwell’s first string quartet, and it’s a thing of beauty. The layers of texture she adds to the lively rhythms and seductive harmonic agenda reveal a pianist-turned-composer with much more to say. The Acacias gave ‘Face to the Sun’ an energetic, glowing first performance, and I’m sure there’ll be many more.

You can’t listen to ‘Spongebob’s Romantic Adventure’ without a smile on your face. Composer Joe Twist has conjured up a wacky tale bursting with character. It’s tricky, too, but the quartet handled the rhythmic and expressive lurches from melodrama to high comedy with impressive fluency.

Works by George Gershwin, Bernard Herrmann and Philip Glass completed the program. The Utzon Room, as ever, did no favours for the string sound, but the Acacia Quartet battled on, finding a rare delicacy in the Gershwin, and vivid glimpses of movies imagined and real in the Herrmann.

As the concert ended and the phones went back on reality came flooding back in but, at least, it was reality coloured by a head full of beautiful sounds. Art matters. Especially now.

If you’re in Albury this weekend you can catch the Acacia Quartet at the inaugural Albury Chamber Music Festival.

If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.

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Opera: the opera

Stacey Alleaume swimming through the air (Photo: Prudence Upton)

Stacey Alleaume swimming through the air (Photo: Prudence Upton)

In the grand tradition of writers writing about writing and painters painting pictures of painters painting, Opera Australia presents an opera about opera. They have the perfect setting, after all: a huge stepped stage with a stunning backdrop, lit by the setting sun. They also have a terrific plot, thanks to Alan John’s and Dennis Watkins’ neatly engineered (and mostly true) narrative of Australia’s biggest home renovation. And, after five years of Handa Opera on the Harbour, they have the know-how to overcome the huge challenges of presenting opera outdoors.

Sydney Opera House: the Opera is the latest incarnation of The Eighth Wonder, Alan John’s 1995 opera tracing the history of the building, from conception in 1958 to its opening night in 1974, 15 years behind schedule and eye-wateringly over budget. The opera has been presented twice inside the Opera House, but this production, outside, with the star of the show towering over everything, is surely its ideal setting. Director David Freeman and stage magician Dan Potra has solved the staging problems with a series of moving platforms and an inflatable castle, which also serves as a screen for projections. It’s a great deal more elegant than that description sounds. It also allows the Architect’s breakthrough aria — when he works out how to construct the sails — to be delivered in front of a dynamic animation of the fascinating geometry of the roof.

Yes, you can sing about geometry. More to the point, you can sing about that moment when you reach an epiphany – a profound, life-changing clarity — and, indeed, the entire work turns on such moments. Rather than dancing to opera’s stock-in-trade tunes of sex and death, the score surges when the central characters, the Architect (admirably sung by Adam Frandsen) and Alexandra, the would-be opera singer (Stacey Alleaume) conceptualise their dreams. Their soaring final duet, where the two meet for the first time, is a love song in the sense that it is a meeting of minds. A romance of ideas.

Other reviewers have paid tribute to the admirable cast and creative crew. Yep. What they said. Stacey Alleaume is a feisty heroine with a glorious voice, Adam Frandsen makes this physically, musically and dramatically difficult role into a wonderfully cohesive whole, and the myriad supporting cast — I particularly loved Martin Buckingham as Cahill and David Parkin as Alexandra’s barbecuing father — sang and acted their socks off. Meanwhile, the orchestra, safely locked up in the Studio with conductor Anthony Legge, brought out the rich and delicate colours of John’s score with brilliant fluency.

As for the entire, outdoor experience, it had plus and minus points for me. The major plus point was the amazing backdrop. As artistic director Lyndon Terracini said, it’s hard to think of a more Sydney experience. The site logistics were also impressively managed; everyone got their headsets, the queues for the bar and bathrooms were minimal and everywhere you turned there was a nice person saying ‘can I show you to your seat’ or ‘can I help you with your headset?’

Ah yes. The headsets. I nearly got into a Facebook fight with Julian Day about a careless generalisation about amplified music when I said I preferred opera unamplified. At the risk of starting another fire, I’ve got to say I’m still have two fundamental problems with amplified opera. The first is dramatic. With the sound either coming out of speakers or being funnelled directly into your ears via cans, it’s not always obvious who is singing. You can mitigate this problem in filmed opera using close-ups or, as they did here, by clever lighting (by the fabulous Trent Suidgeest) to direct the attention. It still, however, feels like a compromise.

The second is to do with tone quality and vocal technique. We talk about traditional opera voices being unamplified, but that’s not strictly true. Opera singers use specific techniques, which people singing in a choir, or a pub, or with a ukelele or, for that matter, into a microphone, don’t. I’m not an expert — there’s some explanation here — but it involves the position of your larynx and manipulating the fundamental and resonant frequency of your voice. So when opera singers sing, naked or into a microphone, their voice is already, to a certain extent, amplified. And while you could say that a microphone just gives them a greater dynamic range – in this case, the sky’s the limit – it also makes me wonder whether it is appropriate to use traditional operatic technique when you’re wired for sound. After all, Opera Australia mainly uses ‘singing actors’ in its (fully-miked) musicals, rather than opera singers, who use their voice in a way much closer to how you or I would sing in the shower. I’m not saying, as Guy Noble naughtily suggests, that acoustic opera should be phased out. In fact, I love the intensity and intimacy of the human voice in an appropriately sized space.  But as performance practices continue to evolve and as opera companies increasingly explore extra-theatrical spaces, will we see singers setting aside techniques developed in the nineteenth century in favour of twenty-first century technology?

If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.