Monday, March 27, 2017

CARMEN - Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Opera in four acts by Georges Bizet. Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion.
Stage Director: Gale Edwards. Revival Director: Andy Morton.
Set Designer: Brian Thompson. Costume Designer: Julie Lynch.
Lighting Designer: John Rayment. Choreographer: Kelley Abbey.
Sound Designer: Tony David Cray.
Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point until 23rd April 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Despite some unfortunate publicity at the beginning of the week which questioned the integrity of this revival, and unco-operative weather which resulted in this open-air production receiving only one full onstage run-through before the opening night performance, all was “right on the night”, and the first-night audience was rewarded with a  thrilling performance that was a triumph for all concerned. 
“Carmen” is the first of the Handa Operas on Sydney Harbour to be revived, and this meticulously prepared revival does full justice to a remarkable production. 

Conceived as  spectacle on a grand scale, Gale Edwards brilliant concept and staging takes advantage of every opportunity provided by the magical location and Bizet’s thrilling score to inject movement, drama and excitement into the proceedings, without compromising any of the intimacy of the central drama between the headstrong gypsy, Carmen, and her smitten soldier, Don Jose.

Jose Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen
Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don Jose
In this she is blessed with a marvellous Carmen in stunning mezzo soprano, Jose Maria Lo Monaco, whose lustrous voice and exotic  passionate presence, captured the attention of the audience, as well as the handsome Don Jose, (Andeka Gorrotxategi) from the moment she set foot on the stage.  Even in the scenes when these two are alone on Brian Thompson’s vast setting, they manage to remain the centre of attention, thanks in part to the remarkable lighting design by John Rayment, which keeps them firmly in focus, even when the stage is flooded with blues and reds, and a swirling mass of singers and dancers.

Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano shine as Carmen’s friends, Frasquita and Mercedes, as do Nicholas Jones and Christopher Hillier as their smuggler friends, Remendado and Dancairo. Adrian Tamburini again demonstrates his strong dramatic vocal and physical presence as the sinister Zuniga, while Luke Gabbedy was a dashing Escamillo and carried off his spectacular entrance with flair, raising the heat with his full-throated rendition of the famous “Toreador Song”.

Jane Ede as Frasquita, Nicholas Jones as Remendado, Christopher Hillier as Dancairo
Jose Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen, Margtaret Trubiano as Mercedes.

Brian Thompson’s set design is a masterpiece of uncluttered simplicity. A circular stage flanked by ramps on either side, allows easy access for the huge team of singers and dancers who populate the crowd scenes. Towering red letters spelling out, in reverse, the name of the opera, mask three levels of scaffold platforms which the ensemble spectacularly inhabit at various points in the opera. A great red neon-outlined bull signals the excitement of the bull-ring, with further spectacle added by the military tank, and large truck which are flown in suspended on huge cranes.  Micaela, (Natalie Aroyan in superb voice) sings her most poignant aria suspended high in the air on top of a huge metal container.

Equally spectacular are Julie Lynch’s remarkable costumes in a cacophony of colours, ranging through glamorous black, white and yellow La Dolce Vita inspired costumes for the ensemble ladies to swirling black and red gypsy skirts for the female dancers.

The cast of "Carmen" 

Kelley Abbey has created a series of extraordinary dance sequences, which are superbly executed by the large dance team, among them, Amy Campbell, who provides a highlight performing a spectacular number in which her huge red silk skirt is manipulated by six male dancers to stunning effect.

Amy Campbell in "Carmen" 

Absolutely In his element with this opera, Brian Castles-Onion, conducts from beneath the stage, moving Bizet’s melody laden score along at a cracking pace, while Tony David Cray’s miraculous sound design insures that each glorious voice is heard to maximum effect.

Once again the excellent Opera Australia chorus rose to the occasion, and not even a passing shower, just as the cigarette girls emerged to complain about the heat on the factory floor, could dampen the excitement created by this remarkable production which captures perfectly the drama, passion and spectacle inherent in this opera.

Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga
Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don Jose

The full magnitude of their achievement became fully apparent when the vast company of singers, dancers, orchestra and technical crew took to the stage for final bows, allowing the audience to appreciate the number of people necessary to bring this gigantic project to fruition.

In his program note, Dr Haruhisa Handa, chairman of the International Foundation for Arts and Culture, notes that the IFAC have extended the title sponsorship of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, which “will enable Opera Australia to continue to craft its unique brand of operatic spectacle”.  Welcome news as Opera Australia continues to demonstrate their expertise in their staging of this unique world class event.

                                                    Photos by Prudence Upton

   This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Stones in his Pocket by Marie Jones

Directed by Chris Bendall. Critical Stages. The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. Thurs- Sat March 23-25 at 8pm. Matinee Sat March 25 at 2pm.

Stones in His Pockets is a quiet two hander with a touch of mayhem and an insight into Irish social history. In the hands of players Grant Cartwright and Sean Hawkins who play multiple characters regardless of age or gender it becomes a gently funny piece that questions cultural stereotyping.

An American film crew comes to a little Irish town to make a film. The locals including young men Charlie and Jake are roped in as extras. John Ford’s 1952 film The Quiet Man came to mind even before one of the characters turned out to be the last surviving extra from that epic.  Against a backdrop of stunning local scenery the real Irish watch Americans play the leads while they play the ones with no lines.

The fantasy of filmmaking comes up against the economic struggles of the two young men.  A third loses his way in drugs as agriculture goes under and he can’t find a future there. Meanwhile the film’s star is ruthlessly trying to catch the local accent through seduction, and the film makers try to plough on with filming even though the locals need time off to be at a mate’s funeral.

The script is not quite as tough about all of this as it might be and tends to leave tensions underdeveloped. But it is worth seeing for the performances of Cartwright and Hawkins, who are masterly in their segues through a very wide range of characters. Throw in Alexander Berlage’s subtle lighting and Dann Barber’s rumpled gorgeous backdrop and it’s likely the themes and the place and the people will remain in the mind.

 Alanna Maclean


Written by Marie Jones
Directed by Chris Bendall
A Critical Stages production
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to March 25

Review by Len Power 23 March 2017

‘Stones In His Pockets’ by Marie Jones has been around since 1994.  It played successfully in London’s West End for three years and had a 198 performance run on Broadway in 2001 as well as productions in Australia.  With the success of similar plays like ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘Peter And The Star Catcher’ in recent years, it’s not surprising that it’s back again.

The play tells a story of a quiet Irish community dealing with the impact of a Hollywood movie shoot in their town.  Working as extras on the film, two local lads find themselves involved with the Hollywood star and a director who has his own ideas of genuine Irish local colour.  How the various people involved react to a tragedy that occurs adds a serious note to the show.

The fifteen characters in the play are all played by two actors, Grant Cartwright and Sean Hawkins.  Playing everything from the two local lads employed as extras to the female Hollywood star and various members of the film crew and other folk who live in the town, the actors give excellent performances with nicely drawn character work as well as genuine-sounding accents.  They handle high speed changes adeptly and have a great sense of timing for the humorous aspects of the script.

The set, designed by Dann Barber, is attractive and functional and the lighting design by Alexander Berlage is excellent.  Full marks, too, to the lighting operators at the Q.  The lighting cues come thick and fast and were accurately done.   Costume design by Michael Hill was imaginative with effective suggestions of costume for some characters working very well.  Sound design by Nate Edmondson added a fine atmosphere to the show.

Director, Chris Bendall, has staged the show very well, keeping it moving at a frenetic pace and giving the actors clever and imaginative ways to make their fast changes.  His work with the actors has ensured that the characters are clearly delineated, an essential requirement for this show.

The main interest in a show like this is in watching how the actors perform it.  As a result it’s not easy to feel any real involvement in the story.  The show works best when it’s being funny.  When the tragedy occurs during the show it doesn’t have the impact it might have had in a straightforward telling.  Nevertheless, the audience clearly had a good time watching this and the performances of these two strong actors are very enjoyable.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Artcetera’ program (9am Saturdays) and ‘Dress Circle’ (3.30pm Mondays).

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Dear fellow artists and art lovers

Canberra has always been a city that values art and artists, in all they do to enrich the Canberra region and community.

In December 2016 the ACT Government made an un-announced, unprecedented 66% drop in funding to Project Funding in the ACT Arts budget for 2017.   This is deeply worrying to many Canberra artists, and in response to a letter co-signed by over 160 of Canberra’s leading artists, the incoming Arts Minister Gordon Ramsay announced that an additional $230,000 of funding will now be distributed for 2017 Projects.  This was very welcome, however it is still only 65% of previous years' funding.

The Arts sector has come together to form the Canberra Arts Action Group to ensure that this doesn't happen again.  The Group also calls for a need for greater transparency and consultation with the ACT Arts Community for the benefit of all. A five point petition will be put to the Legislative Assembly calling for this change. If you wish to support our local artists, and believe that art should be an important and valued part of our community, please sign it.  The petition can be found at

There will also be a very short media event, in which I will take part, to acknowledge the vibrancy and benefits that art brings to Canberra. It will take place outside the ACT Legislative Assembly on Weds March 29th at 12.30 pm. It would be fantastic if you could be there to add your support.
Please pass this information to any in your circles who are patrons, practitioners or lovers of art. It would be great if we could all stand up to be counted.

This message was received from for  Canberra Artist of the Year, Louise Page, and published for the information of Canberra Critics Circle members by Bill Stephens.  


Margaret Legge Wilkinson, piano
Wednesday Lunchtime Live
Wesley Music Foundation
Wesley Music Centre, Forrest - March 22

Review by Len Power

Presented by the Wesley Music Foundation at the Wesley Music Centre as part of their Wednesday Lunchtime Live concerts, pianist Margaret Legge Wilkinson presented an excellent program of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Olivier Messaien.

Canberra’s Margaret Legge Wilkinson has received critical acclaim as a virtuoso pianist of contemporary classical music.  As soloist, accompanist and chamber musician, she has performed throughout Australia and in Europe.

‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ is a collection of two series of Preludes and Fugues in all 24 major and minor keys, composed for solo keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach.  The first set was compiled in 1722 and the second followed 20 years later.  Margaret Legge Wilkinson commenced the program with three Preludes and Fugues from the second set, numbers 12, 15 and 16 in F minor, G major and G minor respectively.  Her playing of each work was clear and crisp and with a sensitivity and understanding that displayed every dimension of Bach’s distinctive music.

The second half of the program was devoted to Olivier Messaien and five selections from his eight ‘Preludes For Piano’, an early work composed in 1928–1929, when the composer was 20 years old.  Messiaen considered it to be his first work of any value.  Each prelude is accompanied by a description consisting mostly of the associated colours.  For example, the second prelude, ‘Song of ecstasy in a sad landscape’ is given the description, ‘gray, mauve, Prussian blue at the beginning and end; diamond and silver at the middle’.

'Song Of Ecstasy In A Sad Landscape' by Collin Murphy

The music has a haunting quality, at times reminiscent of the music of Debussy.  Each prelude was played beautifully by Margaret Legge Wilkinson, bringing out the full range of colour and emotion.  ‘Moments Past’ and ‘The Impalpable Sounds Of A Dream’ were particularly outstanding.

This was an excellent lunchtime concert of fascinating works by two quite different composers.  The Wednesday Lunchtime Live concerts are held weekly at the Wesley Music Centre at 12.40pm and run for about 50 minutes.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Artcetera’ program (9am Saturdays) and ‘Dress Circle’ (3.30pm Mondays).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Salesman

Review by © Jane Freebury

The films of writer-director Asghar Farhadi are taut, tense, obliquely scripted and immaculately performed. His latest film in similar vein won best foreign film Oscar this year, just five years since the director won the same award for A Separation.

I wouldn’t say that his meticulous work is the most cinematic. There is sparing though powerful use of all the expressive elements of his chosen medium, yet he is still one of the best around. Social constraint and strict censorship in Iran have served him well, too.

The Salesman was screening in Tehran when I was a tourist there last year. Our guide said it was doing well, though she seemed a little puzzled by its success. It may not be the sort of entertainment that the young and unattached would go out of their way to see.

Marriage is a central motif for Farhadi, and in the world that he has created in A Separation, The Past and now The Salesman, it is a difficult and, sorry to say, pretty joyless business. This is a filmmaker with a gift like Ingmar Berman’s for creating immersive experience, pitching his audiences deep into the bracken of complicated, compromised interpersonal relationships. It is up to audiences to make what they will of this microcosm and its wider social significance.

The Salesman opens at the theatre where Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are the lead actors in an amateur production of Death of a Salesman. Garish neon signs and an unmade double bed turn out to be theatre props. If there is some resonance between the disillusionment and betrayal of dreams in Arthur Miller’s iconic study of the mid-20th century US and the present-day in Iran, it is obliquely stated, but damn intriguing all the same.

All of a sudden, a life change for the couple. Deep cracks appear in the walls and windows of their apartment and they are forced to move out and into another apartment. It doesn’t have a bulldozer digging next door, but turns out to be a lot less secure. The previous tenant has not fully vacated, and has left a bedroom locked, filled with her belongings. A visitor who calls is expecting that she will still be there.

Meanwhile, in the scenes of Emad and the teenage boys in his literature class we are on reassuring solid ground. This interlude is a welcome window on his character outside the home. At school, he is genial and kind, an effective and popular teacher who can be a buddy to his students but knows where to draw the line. It is a significant insight into his character that we don’t get for Rana.

The former tenant in Emad and Rana's new home ‘lived a wild life’ - code for prostitute. Emad realises that the couple has been betrayed through information withheld, but it is already too late. Without any knowledge of previous comings and goings, Rana has no need for caution, and she lets in an unidentified person who she believes to be her husband, then proceeds to the bathroom for a shower.

Rana is assaulted by this stranger, an attack that is neither seen, heard nor explicitly defined. How could it be otherwise? We only see she is severely traumatised.

Unwilling to allow the details of the assault to become public, she refuses Emad’s request they go to the police. The rift that opens between them only widens with Rana in retreat and Emad tracking down the assailant, impatient for justice. Rana even accuses him of seeking revenge. Complication and compromise follow when the attacker turns out to be someone with vulnerabilities of his own.

If the difficulties this couple face cannot be fully appreciated outside Iran, The Salesman explores territory that can, while rape is one of the least reported crimes. With handheld camera, a modest set, excellent actors and a sensitive and intelligent screenplay, Farhadi has covered some very difficult territory and got us all thinking.

4 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog