In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.

MY TOP 14 AND A FEW RING-INS

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

‘A modern oriental fantasy’

Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour, 2014

IN April Michaela Boland, a senior arts reporter for The Australian, tweeted that NSW arts minister George Souris – he is also minister for tourism, major events, hospitality and racing – had confirmed Madama Butterfly as next year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. I don’t think he was supposed to let that one slip, given the official launch was this morning.

Souris did have plenty of fresh news to offer today, however: Opera Australia’s production is to be directed by Alex Olle from La Fura dels Baus and will have a contemporary setting; the title role will be shared by Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura, who was a deeply affecting Cio-Cio-San in Sydney last year, and Hyeseoung Kwon, an OA regular; and two relative unknowns will appear as Pinkerton, Russian tenor Georgy Vasiliev and Basque Andeka Gorrotxategi.

In an image created by Opera Australia Hiromi Omura is seen against the backdrop of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge

In an image created by Opera Australia Hiromi Omura, Cio-Cio-San for OA last year and next, is seen against the backdrop of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge

Souris said the production “will retain the grace and beauty of the original” and “connect with today’s audience”. OA describes it as “a modern oriental fantasy”. There is the promise of fireworks, naturally, and some spectacular scenic effects, although they may not be the kind opera-goers immediately bring to mind when they think of Madama Butterfly. La Fura dels Baus will locate the opera in an encroaching urban environment.

OA’s artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, said there is the idea of a paradise lost and that Cio-Cio-San will see the city growing around her. Pinkerton, as a commercial developer, will be responsible for the loss of the life she knows. Clearly Souris’s April comment that “Pinkerton will arrive on a Royal Australian Navy boat” is not useful in this scenario, but Terracini did tell me today that Pinkerton will be conveyed to the floating stage via some kind of vessel.

The Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus is well known to Australian festival audiences and has become a force in opera production in Europe in recent years. Earlier this year its production of A Masked Ball for OA set Verdi’s opera in a totalitarian state, a decision quite unremarkable for La Fura but bracing for some OA patrons.

For Madama Butterfly Olle will work with designers Alfons Flores (sets) and Lluc Castells (costumes) as he did for A Masked Ball. The indications are that although there will be some big theatrical moments there will be rather less of the bling that so delighted audiences at the inaugural HOSH, La traviata, and last year’s Carmen. “We have to find a different way of doing it, a more contemporary way,” says Terracini.

Lluc Castells designs for Madama Butterfly, Opera on Sydney Harbour, 2014

Lluc Castells designs for Madama Butterfly, Opera on Sydney Harbour, 2014

Among the new touches are tenors making their Australian debuts in Sydney. Terracini is frank about always being on the lookout for singers who are still at the stage of career-building – “trying to make an impact” – and securing them before they become too expensive. The young and handsome Gorrotxategi (pronounced, I am told, Gorat-SA-teji) can be sampled on YouTube singing Recondita Armonia in a Spanish production of Tosca.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3k7Nei-KiY

Vasiliev was lavishly praised in a review on Bachtrack.com for his performance in Baltimore as Rodolfo in La boheme last November:

 Yet, there was one voice who triumphed: Rodolfo, masterfully portrayed by young Russian tenor Georgy Vasiliev. Using his enormous vocal range and rich tonal spectrum, Vasiliev portrayed the young penniless poet at different stages of his character development, thus allowing the audience to witness his vocal and dramatic evolution. Having given a light, almost bel canto coloring to his “Che gelida manina” in the very beginning of the opera, the tenor gradually descended into the dark world of Puccinian tonality, as he painted Rodolfo’s transformation from a careless youth in Act I into a mature, grief-stricken man in Act IV.

Vasiliev is due to sing Alfredo Germont at the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s La traviata in October.

Souris naturally talked up the economic benefit of HOSH to Sydney – $20 million, he said – and referred to HOSH as the cultural event of the year. Sydney, he said, was ‘home of the performing arts”. Moreover, “Investing in exclusive events that have such bold vision is a key priority for the NSW Government.” With the original three-year agreement coming to a close with Madama Butterfly, that kind of rhetoric would lead one to expect the NSW Government, through Destination NSW, will continue to help fund the event along with Dr Haruhisa Handa’s International Federation for Arts and Culture. We shall see.

I felt there was something a little ominous in this paragraph in the minister’s printed statement: “Following on from the enormously successful production of La traviata in 2012 and Carmen in 2013, Madama Butterfly is a fitting ‘third act’ to Opera Australia’s objective of delivering three seasons of the greatest operas ever written.” Or is that just me?

OA subscribers this year get first dibs on HOSH tickets when 2014 season subscriptions go on sale on Friday, August 23. Terracini will announce the season in Melbourne on that day. Single tickets go on sale on September 23.

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, from March 21-April 11, 2014.

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.