Thursday, June 30, 2016

CARMEN - Opera Australia


Clementine Margaine (Carmen) and ensemble in "Carmen" 

Conductor: Andrea Molino
Director: John Bell
Set Design: Michael Scott-Mitchell
Lighting Designer: Trent Suidgeest
Costume Design: Teresa Negroponte
Choreographed by: Kelley Abbey
Presented by Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 12th August 2016.

Performance on 21st June reviewed by: Bill Stephens

One of the most popular operas in the contemporary operatic repertoire, Georges Bizet’s "Carmen" offers tantalizing challenges to directors looking for fresh ways to interpret it. Among the more intriguing and successful was a 1943 African-American Broadway version, re-titled “Carmen Jones”, set in a parachute factory in North Carolina during World War 11, directed by Hazard Short.

This new production of “Carmen” is Opera Australia’s third in as many years, and following his brilliant “Tosca” last year, John Bell’s interpretation has been much anticipated.

Bell has chosen to set his version in Cuba, or as he writes in his program notes,  somewhere "resembling today's Havana", to allow him to concentrate on the psychology of the Carmen/ Don Jose relationship and to "get away from the traditional setting with its flamenco dancers, gypsies and toreadors".

Some directors have done this by removing the ensemble scenes altogether, but in this version the opera remains intact, although the synopsis in the printed program confusingly contradicts the director by labelling the four acts as taking place in “A square in Seville”, “Lillas Pastia’s tavern”, “In the Mountains” and “Outside the Bullring in Seville”.

Michael Scott-Mitchell's setting with its artfully crumbling Spanish architecture, certainly suggests a plaza, in either Cuba or Seville. However, despite the addition of strings of coloured lights in various scenes; a combi-van which ingeniously converts into a pop-up take-away van for the Lillas Pastia scene; and a truck and some wooden crates for the “mountains/warehouse” scene; the locale determinedly remains the same plaza throughout the opera.
 
Opera Australia Chorus in "Carmen" 


Nor do Teresa Negroponte’s cacophonous party shop costumes provide any sense of period or place, although they do add plenty of unrestrained colour. The final procession before the bullfight, with its piñata horses and garish lycra matador costumes feels more like a carnival than a prelude to a bullfight.   

The ensemble work hard at being sultry or cheerful as required, but the staging of the crowd scenes is curiously pedestrian. Kelley Abbey, whose choreography was such a feature of the HOSA version of this opera, does manage to inject some excitement into these scenes with flashy Latin ballroom-dance inspired routines, and some cute rap-dance moves for the children, but as it’s the psychology of the characters in this opera which most interests Bell, this production fires best when the protagonists occupy centre-stage alone.
 
Margaret Trubiano (Mercedes) Yonghoon Lee (Don Jose) Clementine Margaine (Carmen) Jane Ede (Frasquita) 
Making her first appearances with Opera Australia prior to playing this role with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, French mezzo-soprano, Clementine Margaine takes some time to hit her stride. Saddled with seriously dowdy costumes, her seductiveness during the “Habanera” is very much on the surface, with little back kicks and wrist flicks punctuating her lyrics, as she prowls the stage maneuvering to capture the attention of Don Jose, the only man in the crowd who displays no interest in her at all.
 
Clementine Margaine (Carmen) Yonghoon Lee (Don Jose) 
Once the two connect however, the tension between them slowly begins to build, so that by the time she reaches the “Card Song” in which she is able to reveal the full extent of the warm lustrous tone that extends over the full range of her voice, she is completely immersed in the role.


Korean tenor, Yonghoon Lee is electrifying from the start as Don Jose.  Already nominated for a Helpmann Award for his performance in last year’s “Turandot”, Lee charts a compelling trajectory of a man whose initial indifference eventually turns into a fatal attraction and then uncontrollable obsession.
 
Clementine Margaine (Carmen), Yonhoon Lee (Don Jose) 
His singing is as thrilling as his acting, especially during the lovely “Flower Song”, so that by the time the final scene is reached, his descent from fresh faced youth to wild-eyed psychopath has been so convincingly charted that its inevitability is absolutely shattering.   
 
Jonghoon Lee (Don Jose) - Natalie Aroyan ((Micaela) 
Natalie Aroyan’s interpretation of Don Jose’s abandoned fiancé, Micaela, is delightfully convincing and beautifully sung, but Michael Honeyman’s Escamillo, costumed oddly in a red satin suit, was curiously avuncular and under-powered.

Among the smaller roles, Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano, as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes, and Luke Gabbedy and Kanen Breen as the smugglers Dancairo and Remendado each lit up the stage on every appearance, as did Adrian Tamburini as the swarthy soldier, Zuniga.
 
Margaret Trubiano (Mercedes) Michael Honeyman (Escamillo) Jane Ede (Frasquita)

Bizet’s remarkable score was superbly interpreted by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Andrea Molino, with their playing of intermezzos between acts being especially satisfying. But the score conjures up visions of all things Spanish so cogently that despite the excellent singing and dramatic clarity of this production the music seemed distractingly at odds with the garish Cuban-inspired visuals of this production.

                                     
                                            Production images: Keith Saunders


               This review also appears in Australian Arts Review. www.artsreview.com.au

Monday, June 27, 2016

ICONS - CANBERRA YOUTH ORCHESTRA



Conducted by Leonard Weiss
Soloists: Dr Edward & Dr Stephanie Neeman
Llewellyn Hall Sunday 26 June

Review by Len Power

With Leonard Weiss conducting the Canberra Youth Orchestra and featuring piano soloists Dr. Edward Neeman and Dr. Stephanie Needham, the second Icons subscription series concert promised an exciting and varied program of Gershwin, Mendelssohn and Dvorak.  We were not disappointed.

Commencing with Gershwin’s ever-popular ’Rhapsody in Blue’ with Dr. Edward Neeman at the piano, the orchestra gave a fine performance of this classical yet delightfully jazzy piece.  Dr Needham’s piano playing was superb, bringing out extra colours in the music here and there in his individual interpretation.

Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E Major is one of only two works by Mendelssohn for multiple soloists.  Composed when Mendelssohn was only 14, the work displays an amazing maturity for one so young.  Nicely played by the orchestra and soloists, it was fascinating to watch the communication between the two pianists and the sheer joy they were experiencing in the playing of it.  The second movement was especially lush and lyrical and was played with great sensitivity, although there was some less than precise work from the trumpets.  The final movement was grand and exciting with a thrilling finale.

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 is one of his shorter symphonies, filled with folk-inspired melodies.  The melancholic beginning of the first movement had notably excellent playing from the cellos, clarinet and horns.  The trumpet fanfare was very well-played and the playing by the strings in the final movement was especially fine.

Leonard Weiss conducted with great care and sensitivity.  This was a very entertaining concert with well-chosen works, strong and confident playing by the orchestra and an opportunity to see two master international pianists in top form.

Len Power’s reviews can also be heard on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program on Saturdays from 9am.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

PIGMAN'S LAMENT



Written by and starring Raoul Craemer
Directed by Paulo Castro
The Street Theatre until July 3.

Review by Len Power 24 June 2016

Raoul Craemer’s ‘Pigman’s Lament’ at the Street Theatre is a fascinating, startling and entertaining theatrical experience.  Part autobiography, part fantasy, Craemer takes us on a journey through his mind and spits us out at the other end.

Don’t expect a linear story with a neat ending.  The elements that make up this piece are a bit like one of those Picasso paintings or an Alain Resnais movie.  You have to decide what it all means and maybe it doesn’t matter.  It’s the pure theatricality of this work that makes it so worthwhile and memorable.

Raoul Craemer, who grew up in Germany, India and England, uses his experiences of that background to weave a kaleidoscopic story around a Canberra playwright and stay-at-home dad in a smart Canberra studio apartment who seems to be undergoing some sort of personal crisis.  The ghost of his grandfather is a frightening influence as is his love of soccer, symbolised by a soccer ball covered with a pig’s face which seems to be mocking him.  The laundry basket full of white socks still to be folded and put away may signify issues with being a stay-at-home parent.  The medieval Indian weaver-poet, Kabir, played memorably by Craemer in a previous play, is also bound up in this as is the computer game, Minecraft, and maybe the key to the whole thing is a quote from the German poet, Rilke, about ‘a forest of contradictions’.

Craemer’s performance is intense, controlled, funny at times and always interesting.  We may have different personal experiences to him but, through his down-to-earth performance, we can identify with a lot of the personal anxieties displayed here.  His clever script has been enhanced by the imaginative direction by Paulo Castro who makes sure there’s not one moment that isn’t exciting to look at or listen to.

The set, designed by Christiane Nowak, creates an engaging atmospheric environment for the play.  A gantry of lights protruding diagonally into the acting space seems to tell us that we’re in a theatrical experience, not the real world, but maybe it’s a design statement in this modern Canberra apartment?  The lighting design by Gillian Schwab is imaginative and the original music by Lara Soulio and Sianna Lee and additional sound by Kimmo Vennonen are an essential and pleasing element of this clever production.

You will be challenged by this work but if you’re prepared to go along with it, you’ll find it very rewarding.

Len Power’s reviews can also be heard on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program from 9am on Saturdays.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION



Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Aarne Neeme
Canberra Rep at Theatre 3 to 2 July

Review by Len Power 17 June 2016

In Canberra Rep’s new production of Agatha Christie’s ‘Witness For The Prosecution', fog plays a major part in the atmosphere of the show and in guessing the murderer, you’ll find you haven’t the foggiest idea.

‘Witness For The Prosecution’ was a huge success in London in 1953 and was made into a popular movie in 1957.  Aarne Neeme’s production is particularly strong on depth of character from the performers, making this a very engaging, well-paced show.

Pat Gallagher gives a terrific performance as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, QC.  Emma Wood, as the witness for the prosecution in the show’s title, gives us a fascinatingly cold as ice character with a surprising humanity under the surface.  As the malevolent Scottish housekeeper, Alice Ferguson’s performance is a sheer delight.  Cole Hilder displays a winning naivety and charm as the accused murderer and there is particularly good character work from Jerry Hearn, Ian Hart, David Bennett, Peter Holland, Saban Lloyd Berrell and the rest of the cast.

The set design by Quentin Mitchell is superb.  The show has to alternate between the lawyer’s chambers and The Old Bailey Criminal Courtroom.  The staging of the third act scene change in full view of the audience was so cleverly and efficiently done that it drew a deserved round of applause.

The early 1950s costumes designed by Helen Drum are very well done and lighting by Cynthia Jolley-Rogers added a fine atmosphere to the set, especially in the first scene of the third act.

Agatha Christie herself stated that ‘Witness For The Prosecution’ was her favourite work for the stage.  You can see why in Canberra Rep’s excellent production.

This review was first published in the Canberra City News digital edition 18 June 2016.  Len Power's reviews can also be heard on Artsound FM 92.7's 'Artcetera' program on Saturdays from 9am.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Events

The Events by David Grieg. Directed by Clare Watson. Belvoir St Theatre. May 12 – June 12.

That the final Sydney performance of The Events was sadly followed by Orlando and the killing of British MP Jo Cox only serves to prove the play’s relevance. It’s by no means the last word on the subject of such events but it stirs the thinking.
Claire, a vicar (Catherine McClements) survives the slaughter of her choir by a lone gunman (Johnny Carr) and searches desperately for the reasons and for any meaning in what happened.
McClements gives an absorbing performance as Claire deals with everything from her own shock and grief to her ongoing attempt to understand any possible causes for what has happened. Carr deftly plays a range of characters including the shooter. The intense and sometimes surreal debate between Claire and the young killer becomes the focus of the play and ultimately it is only debate because there seem to be no answers. Which makes it all the more desperate.
The choir in the story is represented each performance by a local choir. (At the last performance on June 12 this was One World Choral) That’s at once a risk and a strength. The strength is the naturalistic truth of that choir as it assembles, chatting, before the show, and as it sings. The risk is that its style is not that of the actors nor of the script. The gently active presence of Luke Byrne at the piano sometimes makes it hard to see who is running the choir, him or the vicar. The theatrical mix is occasionally awkward.
But the heart of The Events is where it ought to be, wrestling with the dilemma of human actions.

Alanna Maclean




Monday, June 20, 2016

TCHAIKOVSKY ROMANCE



Art Song Canberra Concert
Rada Tochalna, Soprano
Lucas De Jong, Baritone
Janis Cook, Piano
Wesley Music Centre, Forrest Sunday 19 June

Review by Len Power

‘Powerful and expressive’ is how pianist, Janis Cook, described Tchaikovsky’s music at the start of Art Song Canberra’s ‘Tchaikovsky Romance’ concert.  The program of songs and music was cleverly arranged, starting from the joy and innocence of young love, through the pain of parting from a lover and the continual striving for happiness through love.

Soprano, Rada Tochalna, began with ‘It Was In Early Spring’ and perfectly captured the innocence of youth in this beautiful song.  ‘If Only I had Known’ displayed not only her fine voice but also her strong acting ability, making the doubt in the mind of a young girl waiting for her lover completely believable.

Lucas De Jong, baritone, joined with Tochalna in a duet, ‘Frenzied Nights’.  His rich baritone nicely complemented her soprano in this nostalgic song.  One of the highlights of the concert was Lucas De Jong singing, ‘Why?’, a sad song about the state of mind at the end of a romance.  The song showed De Jong’s powerful voice and technique extremely well, bringing the emotion of the song through strongly.  Accompaniment on piano for this song by Janis Cook was especially fine.

Janis Cook also played two solo piano pieces superbly – ‘Prelude: The Seasons - April’ and ‘Interlude: Polka de Salon’ from the ballet, ‘Eugene Onegin’.

At the end of the concert, we were given the final scene from Tchaikovsky’s opera, ‘Eugene Onegin’ – a perfect choice for both singers to display the full range of emotion in both voice and acting.  Their performances were powerful and very moving.

All of the songs for the concert were sung in Russian and it was a delightful surprise to hear the singers perform an encore in English of the tongue-twisting song, ‘Tchaikovsky’, made famous by Danny Kaye in the Broadway musical, ‘Lady In The Dark’.

This was yet another fine concert from Art Song Canberra.

Len Power’s reviews can also be heard on the ‘Artcetera’ program on Artsound FM 92.7 on Saturdays from 9am.