Friday, August 26, 2016

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO


By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
English translation and adaption by Michael Gow
Orchestral arrangement by Robert Greene
Conducted by Paul Fitzsimon
Directed by Michael Gow
Designed by Robert Kemp
Lighting Designed by Matt Scott
Opera Australia on Tour
Canberra Theatre 25th  to 27th August 2016

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

This is the third Mozart opera adapted and directed by Michael Gow for Opera Australia on Tour, and certainly his best to date. For this production Gow has written an English translation. He’s also stripped away most of the recitative, and replaced it spoken dialogue. Although a bit surprising at first, this dialogue is witty and clarifies the storyline, and works a treat.  resulting in plentiful  guffaws from the audience.

Gow has also introduces a children’s chorus to replace the small adult chorus. This not only eliminates the cost of touring adult choristers, but provides a rare and valuable opportunity for local children, in the centres visited by the opera company, to experience participation in a professional opera production. It also increases the potential audience of parents and grandparents, besides adding considerable charm to the production.

Gow and his designer, Robert Kemp, have set this production of Mozart’s delicious comedy of manners, in the period in which it was written, the 1780’s, providing Kemp with the opportunity to design colourful Goya-inspired costumes, and a lovely setting of a large, featureless room, overpainted with an Arcadian landscape, which works marvellously for both the indoor and outdoor scenes.

Gow’s inspired direction makes great use of the plentiful doors and windows in this setting to provide a continuous series of lovely stage pictures, perfectly lit by Matt Scott to capture the charm of the period, sometimes lighting solos with just a row of footlights to give the appearance of how that opera might have appeared in Mozart’s day.

This production comes complete with an elegant chamber orchestra, under the direction of Paul Fitzsimon, who keeps the tempi brisk, while allowing his singers sufficient room for individual interpretation, particularly in the glorious ensemble numbers. 

 
Jeremy Kleeman (Figaro),  Celeste Lazarenko (Susanna)
It also comes with an excellent cast of fine singers headed by Jeremy Kleeman as a handsome and spirited Figaro.  Kleeman’s fine baritone and infectious joie de vivre is perfectly matched by the stylish singing and acting of Celeste Lazarenko as Susanna, and together they make an engaging pair of lovers.

Wonderfully elegant as the bitchy housekeeper, Marcellina, Kristen Leich is well teamed with Steven Gallop as Dr. Bartolo. Their reactions to the news that they are actually Figaro’s parents provide some of the funniest moments in the opera.

Brad Cooper (Don Basilio), Kristen Leich (Marcellina),
Steven Gallop (Bartolo), Simon Meadows (Count Almaviva) 

Agnes Sarkis gets her fair share of laughs as the amorous page-boy, Cherubino, and Emma Castelli, makes a lovely Countess Almaviva, her letter-song duet with Susanna, providing a vocal and visual highlight among many during the evening.  As her philandering husband, Count Almaviva, Simon Meadows cuts a dashing figure, singing strongly and acting with conviction, though few in the audience would be convinced of his final contrition.

Jenny Liu, who alternates in the role of Susanna, made the most of her opportunities as Barbarina, while Brad Cooper has great fun demonstrating his versatility as a remarkably flamboyant Don Basilio, and a bumptious Don Curzio.

Fresh, elegant and innovative, this production is not only a treat to watch, but also a delight to listen to. Superb singing throughout, with obvious attention paid by the singers to their diction and characterisations, resulting in plenty of guffaws as the audience got caught up in the storyline. No mean feat for a night at the opera.

  
Agnes Sakis as Cherubino


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

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO



Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
English translation and adaptation by Michael Gow
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Directed by Michael Gow
Conductor: Paul Fitzsimon
Opera Australia
Canberra Theatre Centre to 27 August

Review by Len Power 25 August 2016

First performed in Vienna in 1786, Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ has gone on to become one of the most popular operas of all time.

The amusing story involves a wealthy household in Seville.  Figaro is marrying Susanna, but the Count wants to seduce her first.  Marcellina wants Figaro and the Countess just wants her husband back.  Plots and counter-plots fly thick and fast and, of course, everything works out fine in the end.

Michael Gow’s translation and production adds freshness and down to earth contemporary humour while remaining true to its period.  Sung in English, great care has been taken with diction to ensure the words can be clearly heard and the physical action of the farcical aspects of the plot has been very cleverly staged.  The performers all present in depth, realistic characterizations and display a gift for comedy in their delivery.

The fine ensemble of singers all gave musically strong and satisfying performances.  Steven Gallop’s distinctive bass voice for Doctor Bartolo was heard superbly in his ‘Vengeance’ aria.  Emma Castelli sang a nicely emotional ‘Porgi amor, qualche ristoro’ and Celeste Lazarenko gave a delightful ‘Voi que sapete che cosa √® amor’, one of the most well-known arias in opera.  In fact, the highlights were too numerous to mention – everyone in the cast had their moment to shine.  There was also especially fine singing by the local choir of young voices and they looked delightful in their costumes.

Nicely conducted by Paul Fitzsimon, the eight piece orchestra played very well but needed more strength in the strings at times.  The production designed by Robert Kemp was simple, very practical and attractive.  The cast were dressed in fine period costumes.  The lighting design by Matt Scott complemented the set very well and the use of footlights gave some nice shadow effects.

‘The Marriage Of Figaro’ is always a lot of fun but this production makes things a lot clearer and accessible for today’s audiences.  If this was the first opera you decided to try, you couldn’t do any better.

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Truman




© by Jane Freebury

Of all the titles to choose for a film about a man facing his premature demise, Truman takes its name from a saggy, baggy old boxer dog in need of a good home. A vague connection with former American presidents or celebrity writers is no guide to what we find within, though breaking the name down into its components gives a sense of what the film is on about. 

As a companion for Julian (Ricardo Darin), Truman has been as faithful, steady and reliable as a pet could be during his master's closing act. In truth, the dog doesn’t seem long for this world either. Julian's cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi), Julian’s closest family in Madrid, is fond and caring but seems rather duty-bound to her irascible and difficult relative, a theatre actor who arrived from Argentina long ago, and never returned home.

When Tomas (Javier Camara) flies in from Canada on a surprise four-day visit, Truman has to play second fiddle while the two old friends get out and about. There’s an appointment with Julian's doctor, a visit to the vet, some research at a bookshop, a visit to the funeral parlour, but there are diverting outings too. All the while, the tone is kept light, as Julian remains stoic, ironic and emotionally honest.
Slowly - slyly? - the film reveals the facts. That Julian is terminally ill with cancer, that he is a working stage actor still (he says he wasn’t any good on screen), that he remains on excellent terms with his former wife, and that he perhaps hasn't a lot to show for his life except a string of affairs and a middling career. It's not that writer-director Cesc Gay makes a fetish of withholding important information, it's just that there is only so much we need to know at any one time. It’s up to us to keep up.

Tomas has flown in from Canada on a mission, but as soon as he sees his old friend he knows that it is futile. Julian has decided he won't continue chemotherapy. His sole remaining goal in life is to find Truman a suitable home. 

What really matters is the two blokes in frame and in close up, and their friendship in hard times. Darin and Camara are both superb. In one particular scene, they ask what they have learned from each other. Apart from the illegal things, courage, says Tomas. Generosity, says Julian. Yes, we’ve noted that Tomas pays all the bills.

Julian has a knack for drawing Tomas out, encouraging him to recognize his feelings. Perhaps this accounts for the jarring moment when Tomas and Paula sleep together. Or is it to show the paradox of the loyal friend who can also be the faithless husband?

In 2013, I found Gay's comedy of gender relations, A Gun in Each Hand an initially promising but frustrating experience. It also featured Darin and Camara. This time, Gay has absolutely nailed it with Truman, a deeply satisfying mature drama liberally sprinkled with humour, wit, warmth and insight. 

4 Stars


Also published at www.janefreeburywriter.com.au

Monday, August 22, 2016

Ghost Stories - Canberra Theatre Centre


Review by John Lombard

Stephen King once described horror as a door with something terrible waiting on the other side.  Some writers such as Lovecraft keep the door firmly closed, letting the reader's imagination do the work.  Other writers like Clive Barker swing the door open, confident that their creation is awful enough to horrify.  Stephen King described his own method as creaking the door open for a quick peek, getting the visceral horror of the jump scare but also letting the reader supply their own nightmare.

Ghost Stories subscribes to King's theory of horror, hiding its monsters and teaching us to shiver at what lurks in darkness.  When it opens the door completely, it is less effective, with all menace quickly evaporating in the harsh glare of stage light.  But the three tales of supernatural horror that make up this compilation are genuinely chilling, scary as much for what we glimpse as for what might be out there.

A title like "Ghost Stories" suggests a broad perspective, an attempt to sum up and explain why we are drawn to ghost stories themselves.  Sure enough, Ghost Stories provides this commentary in the person of Dr. Goodman (Stuart Brennan), the malf-mad skeptic determined to explain away the supernatural.  His lecture is the framing device for three ghost stories - the professor's favourite case studies - and as the night progresses we get more hints about the ghosts that may be pursuing Dr. Goodman.

Dr. Goodman explains the ghost story as guilt run amok, the conscience creating its own punishment.  A night watchmen who does not visit his comatose daughter finds something child-lkike lurking in a dark warehouse, while a teen driving without a license ends up trapped in his car, hiding from something in a dark forest.  As Dr. Goodman gleefully points out, we create ghosts because the uneasy mind is always fearful of retribution.

With League of Gentleman writer Jeremy Dyson co-writer alongside Andy Nyman, the show is heavy on humour, especially in Dr. Goodman's manic lectures.  Dr. Goodman is not afraid to bombard the audience with internet memes or to take a sly swig of booze.  The humour tenderises the audience, relaxing it just enough for the jump scares to have maximum impact, supporting the horror rather than detracting from it.

The three short stories are strong, with the opening night watchman story probably the most effective.  The setting and characters are staunchly English, and while the themes were universal this did feel like another country's bad dreams.  I would have been fascinated to see how these stories worked in an Australian setting, perhaps an encounter with a bunyip in the outback.  Heavy accents made the crackly radio voices in one segment almost incomprehensible, but for the most part the United Kingdom locale was a source of character and flavour rather than distance.

The show benefits from brilliant set design and lighting effects.  Tricky timing means that we are sometimes unsure whether we really saw something in the dark or imagined it.  Safe zones are created for the characters, and we tense up when characters stray from them.  A lot of the horror is in anticipation, for example when we are presented with a room full or mannequins or when a blanket in a haunted crib starts to rise of its own accord.  One of the plays even had a subtle smell effect, and I was genuinely unsure whether it was real or whether the mood was making me hallucinate it.

Where the show falters is in its coda, an attempt to fuse horror with humour that eschews the patient mood-building of the three stories for a bathos that falls slightly flat.  The resolution was clever, but so drawn out that it could not be chilling, a weak ending rather than a final shock.

However Ghost Stories achieves its mission, fusing humour and horror in a melange that mostly works.  It deserves particular praise for its adroit stagecraft, using sleight of hand in clever set and lighting to create the creeping atmospheric tension of a good radio play.  Ghost Stories is not only a spooky night at the theatre, but a compelling theory for why we are so determined to make ourselves afraid of the dark.

FUNNY GIRL



Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Directed by Jarrad West
SUPA Productions Inc., Q Theatre Queanbeyan to 3 September

Review by Len Power 19 August 2016

‘Who is the pip with pizzazz?’ sings Fanny Brice in ‘Funny Girl’.  On opening night at the Q Theatre in Queanbeyan, it was undoubtedly Philippa ‘Pip’ Murphy in a towering performance as the early 20th century singer-comedienne made famous in the 1960s by Barbra Streisand, the original ‘Funny Girl’.  That old theatre clich√© of the understudy taking the place of an ailing star does come true now and again.  Murphy, the understudy for the role, did the opening night performance due to the indisposition of Vanessa de Jager.

The show’s strength is in the performances.  Michelle Klemke is terrific as Fanny Brice’s mother, Rose.  Joel Hutchings scores strongly as the troubled husband, Nick Arnstein.  Will Huang is very appealing as Fanny’s friend and mentor, Eddie.  Peter Dark, Shennia Spillane and Dave Smith also give good performances.
Will Huang (Eddie) and the Girls

The focus of this show is the star performance of the actress playing Fanny Brice.  It’s a formidable role needing a singer who can belt strongly as well as sing sensitive ballads and be a comedienne who can play strong drama.  Philippa Murphy ticked all the boxes, giving a memorable performance in the role.  For any actress taking on this role, the pressure is enormous.  If Murphy was feeling the pressure, she certainly didn’t show it.  Her performance was assured throughout.  It was just a pity that the most famous number in the show, ‘People’, was staged with her sitting at a table to the side of the stage, killing any chance for the actress to stop the show with it.

Philippa Murphy as Fanny Brice
There was fine musical direction by Rose Shorney for the voices but the orchestra playing on opening night was quite unsettled.  Choreography by Amy Fitzpatrick captured the style of the era as did the costumes by Suzan Cooper.  Lighting design by Hamish McConchie was fine but there was some strange flickering happening during the second act.  Sound levels were well balanced between singers and orchestra.

Jarrad West’s production is strong on period detail but is hampered by an impractical and unattractive set which limits the playing areas.  A large theatre proscenium and stage with steps takes up much of the space but is hardly used.  In spite of the set piece’s size, its stage is too small and the show numbers are mostly played in front of it rather than on it.  Other scenes were played in cramped areas to the sides of the stage.  The song, ‘Find Yourself A Man’ was especially limited by this.  Some key dialogue scenes had the focus pulled away from them by distracting actions of some chorus members in the background.

However, this is an entertaining production of a show not often staged.  It’s the performances of the principal performers that make it well worth seeing.

Photographs by Craig Burgess

This review was first published in the Canberra City News digital edition on Saturday 20 August.  Len Power's reviews can also be heard on Artsound FM 92.7 'Artcetera' program from 9am on Saturdays.