Saturday, January 30, 2021

Beforehand – the private life of a portrait

 Photography | Brian Rope

Various Artists | Beforehand – the private life of a portrait

National Portrait Gallery | Until 14 February 2021

Beforehand – the private life of a portrait is about the backstories behind iconic works from the NPG collection and the creative and social process of making a portrait. It features excellent works in a variety of media, including thirteen photographic prints.

Entering the exhibition, the first things visitors can read is about storytelling. We are told a portrait captures a person’s presence in time as well as space; tells a story about lived experience – at times conveying a sense of the subject’s past and future. I suspect the vast majority of portraits, including selfies captured by smart phones today, tell very little about lived experience. However, those who are serious about creating good portraits would do well to think about telling their subject’s stories.

The exhibition takes us to the creative journeys behind the portraits, showing us working drawings, studies, scrapbooks, sketches and footage taken in studios or on location. Interviews with artists and sitters tell us much more; revealing relationships and connections between the two parties that generated the story being told.

An interview with champion woodchopper David Foster provides an excellent example of storytelling. Foster is pictured before a tree that he says has witnessed all the years of his family and the legacy of their championships. Photographer Jacqui Stockdale responds “Wow, what the tree saw” and uses that as the title for her image. The collaborative nature of their relationship produced a portrait capturing the essence of Foster’s story. 

                        What the tree saw: David Foster 2018 © Jacqui Stockdale
Collection: National Portrait Gallery.
Commissioned with funds provided by the Sid and Fiona Myer Family Foundation 2018.

Greg Weight’s portrait of contemporary artist Lindy Lee shows her standing within one of her own installations. Weight is present with Lee and has captured her much as he might capture a landscape, connecting us with her creativity. 

                                                Lindy Lee 1995 © Greg Weight
Collection: National Portrait Gallery. Gift of Patrick Corrigan AM 2004.
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program.

Ian Lloyd has also photographed leading artists throughout Australia. His portrait of the acclaimed indigenous artist Gloria Petyarre was taken as she applied layer on layer of dots on a canvas. The resultant image is remarkable, revealing clearly who she is: “an Anmatyerre woman from the Atnangkere country, near Alice Springs”. It is her country, her family’s country, the country she loves. Lloyd shows how his subject has touched and shaped many others.

                                                    Gloria Petyarre 2005 © R. Ian Lloyd
Collection: National Portrait Gallery. Gift of the artist 2010.
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program.

When cyclist Anna Meares and photographer Narelle Autio met ahead of their shoot, both were delighted to learn that neither wanted Meares wearing lycra or riding her bicycle. Both wanted an image of who she was, rather than what she did. The image taken amongst the trees and rocks in the Adelaide Hills clearly shows something of her toughness; the dress she wears shows her femininity.

                                            Anna Meares 2018 © Narelle Autio
Collection: National Portrait Gallery.
Commissioned with funds provided by King & Wood Mallesons 2018

Peter Brew-Bevan’s image of the Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, is stunning. It most successfully portrays the elegant motion of ballet, whilst delighting McAllister by showing what he describes as a “pensive moment”. The image reveals much about Brew-Bevan as well. His own energy is a major part of the shot’s energy, so it becomes a self-portrait of him as well as a portrait of McAllister.


                            The Dance   David McAllister 2016 © Peter Brew Bevan
Collection: National Portrait Gallery.
Commissioned with funds provided by The Stuart Leslie Foundation 2016

In a similar way, Hari Ho’s portrait of Dadang Christanto is a document of a powerful moment of performance in both of their practices. All who have seen Christanto’s Heads from the North in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden, will immediately see and relate to Ho’s intentions here.

Most of us have followed Jessica Mauboy’s career, either closely or at least with some interest. David Rosetzky’s portrait splendidly conveys her energy. Every portrait in this exhibition reveals something of the stories of the subjects and it is well worth spending time with each work, thinking about what is revealed about lived experiences.

This review was first published in the Canberra Times of 30/1/21 here. It is also available on the author's own blog here.





Thursday, January 28, 2021

MY PLACE - QL2 Dance


"My Place" - Photo: Olivia Fyfe

Choreographed by Ruth Osborne and Olivia Fyfe in collaboration with the dancers.

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 21st to 24th January 2021.

Performance 24th January reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Drawing inspiration from the exhibition “This Is My Place” currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery, choreographers Ruth Osborne and Olivia Fyfe, worked in close collaboration with seven recent tertiary dance graduates from VCA (Victorian College of the Arts), WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts), SDC (Sydney Dance Company Pre-Professional Year) to create an abstract response to three sections of the exhibition, variously entitled, My Country – My Place – My Studio. 

Jason Pearce - Photo Olivia Fyfe

A continuation of an excellent initiative by the National Portrait Gallery to enhance the exhibition experience by commissioning abstract dance works by professional dance companies, the works are meant to challenge the viewer to expand their perception beyond the actual artworks towards a deeper appreciation of the connection between the artists and their subjects. 

This particular exhibition, “This Is My Place” is intended as a meditation on those intimate spaces we call our own, whether they be countries, towns or homes, represented in a collection of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures spanning some 250 years.

Patricia Hayes- Cavanagh - Photo Olivia Fyfe

I chose to watch the resultant dance work, “My Place” before viewing the exhibition.  The performance began quietly in the Tim Fairfax Forecourt where the dancers, Amelia Vanzwol, Patricia Hayes-Cavanagh, Jason Pearce, Ryan Stone, Maddy Bowman, Gabriel Sinclair and Alison Tong, costumed attractively in individual muted earth-coloured costumes  had unobtrusively gathered.

One by one each began to perform individual movement variations.  Some quiet and introspective, others aggressively physical, each dancer engrossed in their own thoughts presumably inspired by various aspects of the exhibition though intriguingly not yet obvious to this viewer.

Eventually one dancer broke away and moved into the Gordon Darling Hall. Others dancers followed until only a single dancer remained. He too completed his movements then, trailed by his bemused audience, joined the others in the hall where an evocative musical soundtrack accompanied a series of gently choreographed, beautifully resolved groupings.

"My Place" - Photo: Lorna Sim

As the pace of the music quickened each dancer added an additional item of costume, a hat, a jacket, a cap, referencing the urban aspects of the exhibition, which they eventually discarded to bring the work to a slow lyrical and entirely satisfying conclusion.

As I wandered through the exhibition, my curiosity peaked by the performance, it was satisfying to recognise many of the references, cleverly executed in dance terms by the talented dancers performing “My Place”.

Ryan Stone and dancers - Photo: Lorna Sim

However I couldn’t help wondering what those unsuspecting visitors, who clearly had no idea what they had stumbled across as they entered the gallery, made of it.  I’m sure they would have appreciated a pamphlet with a little information about the work, its purpose, together with the names of the creators and performers which would have allowed them to alert their friends to an additional pleasure they too might discover during at a future visit to the National Portrait Gallery.



This review also published in Australian Arts Review

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Kenny - on stage


Kenny adapted for stage by Steve Rodgers from the movie Kenny (2006) by Clayton and Shane Jacobson.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, January 15-27, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 23

Solo Performer – Ben Wood as Kenny Smythe

Director – Mark Kilmurry    Assistant Director – Warwick Doddrell

Simone Romaniuk – Set & Costume
Damien Cooper – Lighting
Nate Edmondson – Composer & Sound
Mic Gruchy – Video

Photos by Prudence Upton

I arrived early, knowing everyone had to QR Covid check-in.  With time to spare, keeping my distance, I took a turn outside.  A pleasant cool sea breeze – Ensemble was once a boatshed – and a surprising announcement.  Welcome to IPSC, the International Portable Sanitation Convention.  Woops!  Isn’t Kenny on after all?

Ben Wood  as Kenny
Ensemble Theatre
Photo: Prudence Upton

Even more surprising when I find after the show that SPLASHdown Corporate Bathroom Rentals is real, and are given special thanks for their expert assistance. 

I guess that was for providing the portable toilet that Kenny persuaded an audience member, Paul, to put his arm down.  He had to retrieve the big stuff first – a bottle of wine as a reward for his bravery – until he found the wedding ring, just like the one Kenny had had to retrieve in his story of the woman who lost hers down the toot – and then couldn’t touch it, even though he sterilised it, until he wrapped it in toilet paper, leaving without thanking him because she couldn’t stand his smell.

We were, of course, all attending the IPS Convention.  Kenny was certainly the most entertaining keynote speaker I’ve ever come across.  In fact he came across as among the most humane and sincere.  

I have never seen the movie, I think fortunately.  In this adaptation, where Kenny tells us all about his experiences, and even his personal and family responses, in professionally providing and servicing portable toilets to large gatherings around the world – rather than our being voyeurs watching a movie – it seemed to me that Ben Wood was the real deal.  

At the end of this comedy with serious implications, I felt as much respect for the plumbers on whom we all rely – and for all those other frontline workers we have all become so suddenly aware of through this pandemic – as I felt for the actor.  Wood’s representation of all the layers of Kenny’s emotions, second by second, as he works directly with us as participants, was quite extraordinary.  When he showed us the slide of the women toilet cleaners – the Untouchables, of course – in India, I felt as everyone did around me, for their awful plight, with a sense of guilt for our easy lives.  Then, I realised, that Sulabh International, to whom Kenny asked us to consider donating, is real.

Sulabh International “is an India-based social service organization that works to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education. The organization counts 50,000 volunteers.”  Suddenly Kenny and Ben Wood are one.  The fiction of theatre becomes real in the world.  []

I have noted before the work of Steve Rodgers in working directly with his audience in Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing at Belvoir (reviewed on this blog January 12, 2020) and I’m sure I see a link when Kenny gives out cards recording children’s responses to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up” for people in the audience to read out.  When it is revealed that none of them wanted to be a plumber, the point is made about dignity of the person and dignity in their work.

So this production of Kenny is both highly entertaining, as I’m sure the movie is, but even more engaging because of our personal interaction with Kenny’s very-Aussie character full of positive humour and because we become committed to humanitarian ideals like those of Sulabh International.

When I say “not to be missed”, I really mean it.  And am I glad to be back in a live theatre!

Ben Wood as Kenny
Ensemble Theatre
Photo: Prudence Upton





Saturday, January 23, 2021

Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World


Visual Arts | Brian Rope

Various Artists | Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World

Exhibition Gallery, National Library of Australia | Until 31 January 2021

Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World shows how visual artists have documented and interpreted Australia’s buildings for over 200 years. The works are exclusively from the National Library’s extensive collections and include many of our best artists; those whose names and images are known by all art lovers, some less familiar.

Entering the gallery, I was immediately immersed in a stunning photo wall of 48 images, selected from the vast 25,292 collected for the Regional cities and major towns project, which documents the architecture of hundreds of Australian towns. There is a dark moody image of the closed railway station on the Kulwin line in Wycheproof. And there’s an image of Toowoomba’s closed Camera Obscura – how many remember sitting inside as the cylinder wall rotated noisily and you saw significant buildings below in the ancient crater where the city is situated?

Inside the gallery, there are many more wonderful photos, prints, drawings and paintings. Captions are not needed for famous buildings, such as Canberra’s Shine Dome and Parliament House but, for most of us, are necessary for a Surry Hills street, a deserted farmhouse on the outskirts of Maitland during the major flood of 1955, a home by Lynchford railway tracks, a scarred tree in the front yard of a suburban Canberra house, and a miner's hut in Lithgow Valley.


A miner's hut, Lithgow Valley, New South Wales, ca. 1885 © Charles Kerry

There are other delights in display cabinets - contemporary photo books documenting Oxford Street, Masters stores, and ordinary homes. How I longed to pick them up and turn their pages! There is a slide show from Wes Stacey’s archive - homesteads, timber buildings, and the architecture of historic towns and settlements.

Visitors to the exhibition explore the colonial era, when European artists produced paintings, prints and photographs of streetscapes and major public buildings in the new cities and towns, and on frontier properties. Conrad Martens’ striking watercolour of Craigend in Sydney is a feature.

Then we see the first decades of the twentieth century, when artists such as photographer Harold Cazneaux and wood engraver Lionel Lindsay created romantic images of old Sydney, the bush and grand colonial buildings. These images were influenced by the revival of etching in printmaking and a more impressionistic approach to photography.


Going home, Doohat Lane, North Sydney, New South Wales, 1910 © Harold Cazneaux

Later, modernism began to dominate - whether the subjects were post-war architecture or familiar old streets. We see compositions utilising strong contrasts, sharp forms and lines. Olive Cotton’s Fire Escape clearly displays her techniques as expressed in a 1938 magazine interview: “The lighting, the relation of the various objects to the shape of the picture, and many other factors can be changed by the individual, and this is where discernment and personality come into the picture.”


Fire Escape c.1935 © Olive Cotton (1911–2003)

The final images in the exhibition demonstrate how many of these artists found something compelling in buildings where ordinary lives played out, in various states of use, disuse, demolition and destruction. They also created images communicating why buildings are worth seeing and saving.

William Yang, a third generation Australian Chinese, has developed an international reputation as a photographer and performer. His art is about the telling of stories, often writing words on the surfaces of his prints, as in his image of Canberra’s School of Art after a hailstorm in 2007.


Hail #5, School of Art, 2007. From the series - Breathing the Rarefied Air of Canberra
© William Yang

Other great images that appealed to me were Maggie Diaz’s Higgins Boys, Charles Bayliss’s Sydney Technical College Building Exterior, Wolfgang Sievers’ Olympic Swimming Pool, and John Bertram Eaton’s Steps in a Courtyard. Go see for yourself and think about what other buildings are worth going to see again or should be saved for future generations.

Sydney Technical College Building Exterior, 1889, 2 in Photographs of Premises Occupied by the Board of Technical Education of New South Wales, 1889 © Charles Bayliss (1850-1897)

This review was first published by the Canberra Times of 23/1/21 here. It is also on the author's own blog here.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Raise a Glass and Ruffle Some Feathers


Raise a Glass and Ruffle Some Feathers by Shortis & Simpson.  At Contentious Character Winery, Wamboin – near Queanbeyan, just in New South Wales over the border from Canberra, Australia’s Washington DC. January 21-23, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 21

The night begins with quality bubbly, hors d’oeuvres and delicious mains, accompanied by wines with unusual names of a contentious character, celebrated craftily in a song beginning Murder a Merlot, ending with Shades of Grape.  

Literally fully prepared for an S&S traditional satirical musical commentary, on this occasion covering the annus horribilis 2020, there was no hesitation about calling John and Moya back for a finger-wagging warning encore.  Drinks before dinner, drinks during dinner, and drinks after dinner, they sang, mean it will be a rednosed reindeer driving our sleigh tonight.

I made sure to drive home across the state border on a route where I knew the police were not checking if I had come from a hot-spot – a Covid-19 hot-spot, that it is – after an injection of Regeron, hydroxichloroquine and disinfectant like the boastful Donald Trump they sang about.  Actually a very smooth Pinot Grigio.  

Just fitting 'hydroxichloroquine' into the rhythm of a cheerful upbeat song shows John’s music and lyrics composing skill, the humour backed throughout the show by Moya’s quite amazing range of voice quality, and pitch varying from the deepest bass to tiny screech, in all-sorts of characters from Paul Robeson to children’s story-teller.

Shortis & Simpson have the light touch of an entertainment as members of our local community, with emotionally touching moments in their songs such as Smoke Gets In Your Vines for the winemakers and A Glimmer of Hope for native animals.  The summer bushfires a year ago cannot be forgotten.  But neither can the ongoing Covid-19 lockdowns in the sad song of the only chance once a week, putting out the garbage bins, for any excitement for their family and friends in Melbourne, in Another Tuesday Night in Brunswick.

Politics always gets a knowing laugh – about temporary acting-Prime Minister Michael Bloody McCormack (all sing together!), Mr Scomo giving the children an early mark, and the changing of just the word ‘one’ bringing us all together in the National Anthem.  Then there’s a deeper irony as John had prepared himself for the likelihood of more dramatic violence at the real Washington DC at 3am our time on the morning of the show.  The fading away of Donald Trump and the peaceful inauguration of President Biden called for a quiet contemplative poem, read with sincerity by Moya and followed by a beautiful Zoom choir toasting 2021.

Here I can only briefly touch on the variety presented in some 24 items in the two Acts, with sweets in between, of Raise a Glass and Ruffle Some Feathers.  Two more performances at Contentious Character Winery are already fully booked, but I would hope that ruffling feathers will continue, and raising a glass is a good way to do it.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Shakespeare in a Divided America


Design by Keenan

Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro.  Faber & Faber 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Monday January18, 2021

James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has written the ultimate STEAM book.  Of course, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics have their place as they should in this story of why the United States of America remain divided.  But the Arts – Shakespeare’s art, surprisingly – has the central role, as surely we all would want to claim for it.

“Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!” as Aesop is said to have written in his Fables,  some two and a half thousand years ago.  On Wednesday this week, American time, as King Lear’s presidential career ends, in favour perhaps of Brutus, Shapiro’s study of Shakespeare in America explains what it means when we say every child must experience the arts throughout their education.

Shakespeare in a Divided America is essential reading, in my view, for all citizens and especially for those we choose to elect to our parliaments.  It is both a structurally dramatic work of art, exciting and surprising, while its academic research is telling.  Like Shakespeare himself – telling often what we might not like to know.

My characterisation of the outgoing president as King Lear is not in Shapiro’s book, published on 12 March 2020.  It will be interesting to see if Trump realises that so many who voted for him are Edmunds, Gonerils and Regans. Will he feel sad for the loss of those Fools who tried to tell him “Thou should’st not have been old till thou hadst been wise”.  And will we feel sad that he was never able to understand, receive and offer genuine love until too late?  Still wanting to believe Cordelia lives, as he dies politically, will Trump – as Shakespeare’s Lear perhaps seems to in his final madness –  realise that his obsessive self-centredness is the cause of her death and his failure?  

Shapiro’s story begins “… it was the election of Donald Trump in 2016 that convinced me to write about Shakespeare in a divided America….I wasn’t the only one turning to Shakespeare to make sense of the moment….On the eve of the election, Stephen Greenblatt published a powerful op-ed in the New York Times likening Trump to a Shakespearean tyrant….And a month after Trump was elected, Oscar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, decided to respond to this seismic event by directing a production of Julius Caesar the following summer at the Delacourte Theater…in Central Park.”

Since the open air theatre was built in 1962, “spectators – by now, more than 5 million – have flocked to see Free Shakespeare in the Park.  Fifty thousand more would see this timely Julius Caesar….That production and reactions to it, powerfully shaped my understanding of much of what follows in these pages….”

And my understanding of American culture, and the many roles played by Shakespeare in it, has been powerfully re-shaped by what followed.  The chapter titles, each centred on a date of significant change, must stir anyone’s thinking and raise our concerns about social harmony and conflict – past, present and future:

1833: Miscegenation
1845: Manifest Destiny
1849: Class Warfare
1865: Assassination
1916: Immigration
1948: Marriage

concluding with
2017: Left / Right

Australia’s story, of course, runs in parallel with America’s since their War of Independence of 1776.  That took place between Capt James Cook’s fateful arrival on Tasmania’s shore in 1770 and the redirection of Britain’s convicts from America to Australia with the appointment of Arthur Phillip as the first governor of New South Wales on 12 October 1786 – and his invasion with the First Fleet in 1789.

The close cultural connections between America and Australia, which we still perhaps take too much for granted, jump out of these pages, even though Shapiro writes entirely from the American viewpoint.  For example, being an immigrant here myself, directly from Britain, I have learned from “1916: Immigration” key points of new understanding about my Australian experience.  

In particular there is the interpretation of the nature of Caliban, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, by Joseph Quincy Adams among many others:  “…in the person of Caliban, Shakespeare represented the treacherous nature of the natives, as reported by the colonists”, which supposes that Shakespeare knew of the new colony of Virginia. Caliban’s island was taken to be an island off the American east coast. Fake news of 1 November 1611, when The Tempest was first performed?  Maybe or maybe not: the colonists first landed there in 1607, but there’s no evidence that Shakespeare was aware of or interested in this.  

But, Shapiro notes, after compulsory education  for the young was instituted (beginning in 1852), and the study of Shakespeare’s plays was made a requirement, Adams could gratefully say in 1932, in his inaugural lecture opening the Folger Shakespeare Library, this was: “Fortunately about the time that the forces of immigration became a menace to the preservation of our long-established English civilization.”  

Restricting immigration via a literacy requirement came in 1917 and, writes Shapiro, the “anti-immigration forces achieved their ultimate goal: the institution of racially driven quotas in 1921, and even more restrictive ones in 1924, that would be the law of the land until overturned in 1965.”  A White America/Australia policy which took us until 1973 to overturn.  All the result of a glorified  racist dead-white male Shakespeare showing us the sub-human example of Caliban, never to be admitted into “our long-established English civilization”.  

So keep your wits about you when you wish for everyone to be educated in the arts.  James Shapiro has a surprise in every chapter, with amazing background details (I loved especially the story of the writing and many re-writings of Kiss Me, Kate) and concluding with what happened when Brutus, full of concern about preserving democracy but terribly anxious about using violence to do so, stabbed a Caesar who looked like Donald Trump in 2017.

As I would say of any top-class drama: not to be missed.

James Shapiro
Photo: Mary Cregan









Friday, January 8, 2021

THE MERRY WIDOW - Opera Australia

Julie Lea Goodwin with male ensemble

Directed and choreographed by Graeme Murphy – Conducted by Brian Castles-Onions 
Set Designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell – Costumes designed by Jennifer Irwin 
Lighting designed by Damien Cooper – Sound designed by Tony David Cray 
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House until 16th January 2021. 

Opening night Performance, 5th January 2021, reviewed by Bill Stephens

Julie Lea Goodwin (Hanna Glavari) with male ensemble 

“The Merry Widow” was the perfect choice for Opera Australia’s return to the Sydney Opera House after an absence of 10 months because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. 

Attending the performance however was a slightly unsettling surreal experience with the faces of the audience unrecognisable behind masks, social distancing, and no bars operating during the intervals. Not that the carefully monitored restrictions dampened the enthusiasm of the audience, which enthusiastically cheered and applauded the performers at every opportunity.

Graeme Murphy’s sumptuous production was first seen in Sydney in 2018 with Danielle De Niese as the widow, Hanna Glavari and Alexander Lewis as Danilo. 

Julie Lea Goodwin (Hanna Glavari) - Alexander Lewis (Danilo)

This 2021 revival has been carefully restaged by revival director, Shane Placentino with Julie Lea Goodwin, who played the widow at the matinees in the 2018 season, and with whom Lewis was so successfully teamed for the Opera on Sydney Harbour production of “West Side Story”, stepping into the role of Hanna Glavari. They are a thrilling combination.

Julie Lea Goodwin gives a genuine star performance as Hanna Glavari. Confident, elegant and beautiful, with a crystalline soprano, she was every inch the beautiful widow worthy of the adoration of the bevy of males surrounding her. 

Matching her every step of the way, Alexander Lewis, with his rich tenor voice, manly swagger and confident sex appeal, was funny, moving and compelling as the lover whose ego had been bruised by their previous encounter. 

Both are superb singers, accomplished actors, and most importantly for this production, excellent dancers. It was fascinating to watch them mine Justin Fleming’s witty English translation for subtle nuances to bring unexpected depth to their characterisations as two former lovers who suddenly find themselves in a position to rekindle their relationship.

There’s a particularly memorable moment when Danilo hides in shadows of the garden pavilion to listen to Hanna sing “Vilia” knowing that she is really singing for him. His presence, although subtle, provides context for a song which is often just a set-piece for Hanna.

Julie Lea Goodwin in "Vilia" with ensemble

Murphy’s staging for this scene is particularly masterful in a beautiful setting inspired by Monet’s water lily paintings. As the song ascends to its climax, he has Hanna seated on a giant water-lily frond gently lifted skyward by three male dancers. The result is pure magic.

His stagings of the duets and ensemble numbers are also inventive, and his choreography for the large ensemble of excellent dancers often surprises with its originality. Indeed his first act finale waltz drew cheers from the first night audience.

The Grisettes

It’s a pity therefore, during a dance by the grisettes in the third act, a disappointing lapse in taste has the girls drop to all fours to display their red knickers in a move so vulgar and demeaning that one can only feel embarrassment for the dancers required to execute it.

Richard Anderson - David Whitney - Tom Hamilton -  Brad Cooper
 - Alexander Lewis - Luke Gabbedy - Alexander Hargreaves.

An impressive supporting cast of Opera Australia heavyweights including David Whitney (Baron Mirko Zeta), Richard Anderson (Alexis Kromov), Tom Hamilton (Konrad Pritschich), Dominica Matthews (Praskovia), Jane Ede (Sylviane) Luke Gabbedy, (Viscount Nicolas Cascada) and Brad Cooper (Raul de St.Brioche) all returning in the roles they created in 2018, revelled in their over-the-top operetta characterisations, while Benjamin Rasheed (Njegus) almost stopped the show with his outrageous antics in “Quite Parisian”.

Stacey Alleaume (Valencienne) - Virgilio Marino (Camille de Rosillon)

Stacey Alleaume was again a delightfully flirtatious Valencienne, but took a little time to adjust to her new Camille de Rosillon, Virgilio Marino, who despite his fine tenor voice seemed miscast as the ardent lover. But of course, as beautiful as this production is, it is Franz Lehar’s gloriously tuneful score that keeps audiences coming back to “The Merry Widow”.

Conductor Brian Castles-Onion clearly delights in its riches. He confidently guides his orchestra and cast from the overture, which he takes at an exhilarating clip, through the dreamy duets, the lush waltzes and stirring national dances, all superbly played by the Opera Australia Orchestra, leaving the singers room for romantic flourishes while never allowing the evening to flag, providing the perfect ambience for Murphy’s gorgeous production to work its magic.

                                             All photos by Prudence Upton

This review also published in Australian Arts Review.