Friday, September 28, 2018

EVITA - Opera Australia and John Frost

Tina Arena as Eva Peron
Lyrics by Time Rice – Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Direction by Harold Prince – Choreographed by Larry Fuller

Designed by Timothy O’Brien – Lighting Design by Richard Winkler

Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre - Sydney Opera House until 3rd November.
Performance 19th September reviewed by Bill Stephens

Based on the events surrounding the rise to power of Eva Peron, “Evita” is a sung-through musical documenting the rise to the Presidency of Argentina of her husband, Juan Peron, because of a revolution organized by Eva. Beginning and ending with Eva’s funeral, it touches on her activities as the spiritual leader, (Santa Evita), the First Lady and Labour Chief of Argentina as seen through the eyes of the character, Che, based on the real life revolutionary, Che Guevara.

Having seen Patti Lupone perform the role of Eva Peron in the original Australian production, and other versions, both amateur and professional, the opportunity provided by Opera Australia’s excellent new production to refresh recollections of Hal Prince’s original staging was both enticing and enlightening.

Opera Australia's "Evita" 
Even forty years on, Prince’s dark Brechtian staging remains impressive, particularly his method of telling the story through the striking use of scaffolding, film and fluid, tightly focused ensemble movement. This technique has been adapted and incorporated into many contemporary musicals. “Jersey Boys”, currently on show in Sydney, immediately comes to mind.

Boasting one of Lloyd Webber’s best scores, in which almost every song is an ear-worm, and to which Rice’s biting, satirical lyrics are perfectly matched, the show makes huge demands on all the cast, but particularly its leading lady, who leaves the stage only to change costumes. 

As Evita, Tina Arena gives a star performance, wisely bringing her own interpretation to the role, but not as yet fully claiming it. On opening night her character still appeared more motivated by the direction than by her own responses to the events surrounding her.

Tina Arena (Eva Peron) - Kurt Kansley (Che) 
Her singing voice is lustrous, comfortable through the full range, whether cooing seductively in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You”, or powering through the complexities of “Rainbow High”. You could hear a pin drop during her carefully phrased, spell-binding account of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”.

However, as lovely as her voice is, her articulation lacks the laser sharp clarity necessary to drive the all-important lyrics up the theatre. This was particularly noticeable in the eleven o’clock number, “You Must Love Me”. Not in the original production but clumsily interpolated here, this song was written for the Madonna movie. Fine for the film but not so fine for the stage, because, even though it is beautifully sung by Arena, this song is written for the lower vocal register, making it difficult to discern the lyrics which in any case seemed to be repeating the sentiments expressed in “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and therefore superfluous and oddly out of style.

Kurt Kansley, who plays the narrator, Che, also shared this problem. He interprets the character as unrelentingly cynical. It’s an arresting performance, but very two-dimensional, lacking even the fleeting hint of  admiration for Evita’s success that may have rescued it from becoming ultimately tiresome. More importantly, as his character is linking the storyline it’s vital that the audience hear his every word, and on opening night, despite his strong singing, many important lyrics were lost under the richness of the magnificent 29 piece orchestra.

Paulo Szot as Juan Peron 
Perhaps the biggest surprise of this production is Paulo Szot as Peron. Brazilian baritone, Szot, won a Tony Award for his Broadway performances as Emile De Becque in the Bartlett Scher version of “South Pacific”, the role played by Teddy Tahoe Rhodes when Opera Australia presented this production in Australia.  Szot has appeared in opera previously for Opera Australia and his commanding presence and warm resonant baritone imbues the role with thrilling gravitas.

Michael Falzon brings loads of charisma to his underwritten role as the smarmy tango singer, Magaldi, oozing his way through “On this Night of A Thousand Stars”, while newcomer, Alexis Van Maanen, in her professional debut, as the young mistress unceremoniously ousted by Eva, adds lustre to the evening with a superb account of her only song, “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”.

                                                            Photos by Jeff Busby

 This review also appears in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.