A Masked Ball, Semele Walk, Sydney Festival

A Masked Ball, Opera Australia in association with the Sydney Festival, January 16

Semele Walk, KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, Germany, Sydney Festival, January 12

Tamar Iveri and Jose Carbo in Opera Australia's A Masked Ball. Photo Prudence Upton

Tamar Iveri and Jose Carbo in Opera Australia’s A Masked Ball. Photo Prudence Upton

WHEREVER or whenever you want to set it, Verdi’s A Masked BallUn ballo in maschera – takes place in a world of privilege where the haves live it large and those less fortunate look for ways to improve their position by any means possible. Opera Australia’s new production, directed by Alex Olle from the Catalan company La Fura dels Baus, locates the action in a contemporary totalitarian society, the kind in which it’s necessary for the ruler and his hangers-on to live within a concrete bunker, albeit one of grand proportions.

In something of a miracle, set designer Alfons Flores has made the Sydney Opera House’s dinky Joan Sutherland Theatre stage look majestically capacious as columns and platforms rise and fall to encompass seamlessly King Gustav’s public rooms, his private office, the lair of the fortune-teller Ulrica, the home of Secretary of State Renato and the execution field where Renato’s wife, Amelia, seeks a remedy for her lovesickness. The view from Gustav’s office is of the security apparatus going about its business, seen via video link. He needs the protection. While Gustav brushes off the warning that someone close to him wants him dead – everyone at court is devoted to him, are they not? – outside there are those who would rise against him if they got the chance and the nerve.

The appearance is monumental and simultaneously enclosed and cut-off. In such a space almost everything stated becomes suspect. When Gustav claims that the love of his people will shield him, you think instantly of Bashar al-Assad, holed up while his country burns around him. Naturally those around Gustav tell him what he wants to hear; perhaps he really believes it, perhaps not. Here, thoughts of North Korea pop up, particularly as the members of Gustav court are not only identically dressed but thoughtfully provided with a number. They are also kitted out with a rather nasty face covering – not so much a mask as a latex hood such as aliens or sex perverts might own. The double-edged notion that no one is showing his or her true face and that the court has been reduced to oppressive conformity is good, but Lluc Castells, the costume designer, could perhaps reconsider the means for expressing it.

Some mental gymnastics are needed to reconcile the Amelia-Gustav love story with the image of an iron-fist ruler. Perhaps Gustav is little more than a puppet figure whose courage is finally revealed through love, but if that’s the case the audience has to do the work. OA’s Gustav, Diego Torre, isn’t up to conveying that kind of nuance. He is impressive at full bore, with a brightly coloured tenor that hits the big moments out of the park but is less adept at bringing finesse and variety to Gustave’s more complex moments.

As Amelia, the lovely Georgian Tamar Iveri is a winner from her first moments. The possessor of a soprano of warm timbre, strong focus and plentiful power at the top, she illuminates Amelia’s longing, confusion and pain with eloquent variety of colour, phrasing and dramatic shaping. Jose Carbo is similarly gripping, his Renato altering course thrillingly from faithful courtier to implacable foe. As with Iveri, Carbo is keenly alert to the shifting emotions of the character, growing in stature and vocal authority as the evening progresses.

Gustav’s page Oscar, conventionally a trousers role but here emphatically a female part, is in the zesty hands of Taryn Fiebig, whose crystalline soprano soars easily over the orchestra and the fine forces of the AOBO chorus. At the other end of the female vocal spectrum, Bulgarian mezzo Mariana Pentcheva plays Ulrica with easy assurance and brings a cast-iron implacability to her lowest register, but her heavy vibrato and squally top are distracting. On opening night conductor Andrea Molino tactfully kept good orchestral cover going whenever Pentcheva had to go beyond her comfort zone.

Molino – he conducted Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men for OA in 2011, an under-appreciated  highlight – was terrific throughout, minus a couple of occasions when singers seemed stretched by his tempi. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra went like a well-targeted rocket from the outset on opening night and was particularly responsive to the score’s light, bouncy music for Oscar.

Olle’s concept is powerful and generally persuasive – he manages to pull it all together with a big, surprising and extremely strong ending – although overall the ideas are expressed relatively tamely. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that the underscore of protest and dispossession have been ramped up when the production moves to OA’s co-producing companies in Buenos Aires, Brussels, Oslo and Bologna. Were Sydney and Melbourne opera-goers considered too conservative for the kind of provocations for which La Fura dels Baus is famous?  Or is this just the beginning of the journey?  Whichever it is, this is a production calling out for further viewings.

A Masked Ball continues in Sydney until February 12. Melbourne, six performances April 12-May 3. In Melbourne the role of Amelia is shared between Csilla Boross and Jacqueline Mabardi; Lorina Gore sings Oscar

SEMELE Walk brought a huge jolt of energy to the Sydney Festival and oodles of glamour. If you are coming late to the discussion, Semele Walk offered an abridged version of Georg Frideric Handel’s baroque opera – all the hits, none of the slow bits – performed as models paraded a lavish number of looks from British designer Vivienne Westwood.

Devised and directed by Ludger Engels, the marriage of Handel and Westwood was as magical as it was mad. If you wanted to look at the show with a peevish eye, yes, there was an awful lot of loud clumping as attenuated young women wearing sumptuous Westwood and vertiginous heels pony-stepped up and down the long runway in the centre of Sydney Town Hall.

And yes, as soloists Aleksandra Zamojska and Armin Gramer strode from one end to the other their voices left only a vaporous trail behind them. I very much enjoyed the trick of placing choristers from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs amongst the audience, although I imagine it may have been challenging to put the sound together coherently if you were seated next to one of the altos.

On the plus side, the musicians of Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop stayed in one place, together, mostly, and were superb. Some of them were also dramatically kitted out in Westwood and looked extremely funky. Standing in front of them, music director Olof Boman kept a firm hand on the disparate proceedings (they included some electronica), a light hand with Handel’s divine music and even made a brief appearance on the catwalk.

There was no profound correlation between Westwood and Handel waiting to be uncovered. The bones of the story were there: the mortal Semele, married to Zeus, oversteps the mark by demanding to see his full godly glory, and implodes. Semele does sing of pride, vanity and excess, which suits, but essentially there is just a lot of beauty and temperament thrown together in the same space.

On the Westwood side the temperament was to be found in the gorgeous, ornate, fanciful gowns – the models, of course, went about their business with the requisite blank faces, although I think I saw one suppress a smile when Gramer started fondling her frock.

On the musical side Zamojska’s Semele was a whirlwind, furiously racing about looking super-glam in Westwood and rather risky heels. Her soprano is high, silvery, flexible and beautifully placed, making great pleasures of O sleep, why dost though leave me and Myself I shall adore. Graner is a smooth, confident counter-tenor with an impish air who captured well the graceful flow of Where’er you walk.

It was fun to see the fashion crowd and the opera crowd thrown together too – an extension of the onstage drama. A memorable festival experience.

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