A Cunning Blog

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Picture perfect

pigmalion-3White gloved minions, security pass lanyards, the fey gallery director… Pinchgut Opera’s latest offering is a delicious comedy of manners set within the tight-knit, high brow world of Fine Art. Three one-act operas — two by Rameau, with a comic interlude from Leonardo Vinci — sit nicely in an upmarket gallery, alongside the precious exhibits and precious people. It’s an ingenious way to frame – literally and figuratively — the action, and a great excuse for adding a bit of quirk and fizz to the stock characters of French tragedie lyrique. Thus modern and ancient archetypes meet in a complex and fascinating play on art and artifice.

The strength of this production is in the individual characterisations: everyone on stage has a distinct role to play. Not only that, but they must sustain that role throughout the instrumental interludes, the dance sequences and set piece arias. Director Crystal Manich and movement designer Danielle Michich have done a great job. Every step, every move tells.

But this production’s strength — its busy, minutely observed human backstory which animates the lengthy da capo arias — is also what makes it one of Pinchgut’s less successful productions. There is so much to see that, for me, it ends up lacking focus and, hence, losing that intensity of emotion that the music requires. Thus, Vinci’s buffa interlude, Erighetta & Don Chilone, which plays out on and around the confines of a chaise longue, is the most dramatically compelling, in spite of its less than ambitious score. It also has the advantage of two brilliant comic actors, Richard Anderson and Taryn Fiebig, who also happen to be opera singers. This pair are, individually, the anchors for Anacreon and Pigmalion, respectively, then a slapstick double act for Erighetta & Don Chilone. It’s a tour de force.

We interrupt this review for a quick commercial break. If you haven’t already looked at my book project, SanctuaryI hope you will! It’s a history of Dartington Summer School, with words and pictures. I’m crowdfunding it with the enlightened UK publisher Unbound. Do take a look, do pledge, and do share it on social media or IRL!

One of the great things about Pinchgut Opera is its quest to share new discoveries with its audiences. One of these two works of Rameau, for example, is getting a rousing Australian premiere only 250 years after it was first written*. And there are also two exciting Australian debuts, for British tenor Samuel Boden and Australian-born soprano Lauren Zolezzi. Boden takes the role of the sculptor Pigmalion, blind-sided by love for his own creation. He combines a natural stage presence with a fine tenor, full of nuance. Zolezzi, in the role of Cupid, owns the stage with her cheeky skip and clarion tone, negotiating the coloratura of the role with nonchalant sass. Watch out for these two.

Three more memorable Pinchgut debuts: David Hidden as the gallery curator, Allegra Giagu in the role of Lycoris and Morgan Balfour in the role of Cephise. Giagu comes to Pinchgut via their partnership with Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, while Hidden is a Saul alumnus. As for Balfour, her brief but brilliant moment in the spotlight, as Pigmalion’s all-too-human lover, marks her out as another star in the making.

In an artistic climate where large arts organisations are inclined to duck the challenge of new repertoire and unknown artists, Pinchgut is showing the way.

*Thanks to Leigh Middenway on pointing out my original mistake in saying Pigmalion was an Australian premiere. From Leigh: “It was done in Adelaide in 1972 with Richard Divall conducting. I’m from Adelaide and when I posted my own reaction to the Triple Bill, an old friend wrote that he’d sung in it. He rattled off some names and even scenery and costume details.” Trust Adelaide to be first!

The last performance is tonight, Tuesday 20 June. 




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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.

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The Code: a guide to concert dressing, part 2

Barbara Bonney (left) and Fiona Campbell (right) in Seoul in 2010. Of all four outfits (white tail coat, bias cut oyster satin, black so-tight-can't-sit-down sheath and red satin, this got the most votes)

I had to review the Australian Brandenburg concert for SMH last Friday. It was, as expected, a great concert. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell and have been ever since I saw her in Pinchgut’s Juditha Triumphans. This was my first opportunity to hear her on the concert platform, and it was terrific.

Come review writing time, however, I hit a knotty problem. Campbell is a very theatrical singer, and she was performing operatic arias. To heighten the drama, she had four costume changes during the evening. Would it be frivolous to review the dresses as well as the music?

A bit of a different look for baroque divo and diva

In the end, this is all that 350 words could fit.

But it got me thinking about onstage concert gear. For the diva, a wardrobe full of glitzy evening gowns is de rigeur. For most orchestral musicians, however, the choice is black tie, white tie, or, more often than not, just common-or-garden ‘concert blacks’. These days, as classical ensembles react to the flight-to-hipness, more and more ensembles are getting trendy. The Australian Chamber Orchestra have had Akira Isogawa designing their outfits for nearly a decade now, and Carla Zampatti designs the ladies outfits for the Australian Brandenburg. The Goldner Quartet stick to own choice blacks, while the Australian String Quartet, currently all ladies, go for own choice evening gowns.

Does it matter? Do we like frocking up? And any suggestions for who young artists about town might get to design their costumes?