Opera and musical theatre in 2014

MUSICAL theatre in Sydney got a boost in 2014 with the arrival of Hayes Theatre Co. When Darlinghurst Theatre Company won the residency at the lovely new Eternity Playhouse, a group of music-theatre producers collectively known as Independent Music Theatre took over the Darlinghurst’s former premises, a small theatre in Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point. They named their venture after legend Nancye Hayes and got off to a cracking start with Sweet Charity in February.

Indie group Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre was originally part of the group, but quietly withdrew during the year and recently staged its Sondheim on Sondheim at the Reginald, the Seymour Centre’s smallest theatre space – and an endearing one too. Squabbalogic will be seen there again in 2015.

Regular work from both groups gives Sydney a strong alternative to the handful of mega-musicals that hog the city’s pitiful number of big houses for long runs.

On the opera front a three-tier system (albeit a lop-sided one) is settling in. Brilliant young outfit Sydney Chamber Opera, which concentrates on new work and Australian premieres of small-scale operas, now has a residency at Carriageworks. That should give it some extra security. Since 2002 Pinchgut Opera has performed works rarely heard in Australia, often from the baroque period. This year it staged two operas for the first time since its inception and will do so again in 2015. Last month Pinchgut and Opera Australia announced that Pinchgut would be given office space at OA’s Opera Centre in Surry Hills. OA has in the past helped with rehearsal space, costumes and props but in a show of solidarity has increased its commitment. Pinchgut made it clear it would be retaining its independence.

At the big end of the market is Opera Australia, obviously, but let’s not forget Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It presents only one semi-staged production a year but the scale of the music-making is tremendous and unmissable. For OA it hasn’t been the happiest of years, with the organisation regularly and severely criticised. I’ll talk about some of those things in a later blog on the year’s arts issues. For now, let’s look at what I loved in 2014. As with theatre, my favourites are presented in order of transmission. They include operas and musicals seen in New York and London.

OPERA

His Music Burns, Sydney Chamber Opera at the Sydney Festival (January): This was an entrancing double bill of rarities, both Australian premieres. György Kurtág’s … pas à pas – nulle part… and George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill were seen in elegant, spare productions and performed with musicianship of the highest order. Really special

Anna Netrebko in L’Elisir d’amore, Metropolitan Opera, New York (February): What to say about Netrebko except that she is deservedly a huge, huge star. Apart from having a voice of dark beauty, electrifying power and easy flexibility, Netrebko’s was a divinely acted Adina: strong, funny and touching. The sexy bass-baritone Erwin Shrott played Doctor Dulcamara as a very naughty boy indeed and with a voice to die for. Apparently the separation late last year of Shrott and Netrebko after a long personal partnership hasn’t affected their work. They seemed very jolly together on stage. A fabulous night.

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly, Metropolitan Opera (February): I’d longed to see this for years and I wasn’t disappointed. The setting is little more than a dark, glossy void that subtly reflects the action. Within are simple white screens that move to create a space or camouflage the removal of things or people. It could be seen as a giant lacquer box with white compartments, which seems an excellent place to put Butterfly, and Butterfly. It’s not an intimate setting, but the high artifice – for me at least – heightened the emotional content. The crowning effect is the use of Bunraku puppetry, most fascinatingly and powerfully to represent Butterfly’s little boy. I heard Cio-Cio-San sung by South African Amanda Eschalez. When this production comes to Perth International Arts Festival in February it will feature the soprano who originated the role for Minghella, Mary Plazas.

Christine Goerke’s Elektra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra (February): Goerke’s soprano is a huge instrument, full, plush and radiant with no sense of strain despite having to soar over the mighty forces of David Robertson and the SSO in the Concert Hall. Elektra’s is a magnificent obsession despite the madness underpinning it. Goerke gloried in the woman’s unwavering pursuit of justice and gave it a terrible beauty. She was incandescent in a production that really was very close to being fully staged. The SSO produces music dramas on a scale impossible in the Joan Sutherland Theatre – the last time Elektra was heard in Sydney was in 2000 as part of the Sydney Festival, in a production at the Capital Theatre with Deborah Polaski as Elektra and Simone Young conducting the SSO.

Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia (March): It was somewhat disheartening to see that OA believed – and I imagine it was correct – it could sell only eight performances of Eugene Onegin. It is such a ravishing piece. One could quibble about aspects of Kaspar Holten’s production – a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Fondazione Teatro Regio, Turin – but there was no quibbling where Nicole Car is concerned. She was greeted at the curtain with stamps and cheers after a glorious Tatyana and deserved every accolade she has received. The young singer – she is not yet 30 – is in full bloom. Her soprano is richly coloured, lyrical in quality and gorgeously produced from top to bottom, and Car looks a dream on stage.

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (March): Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura was all-conquering in the production designed and directed by La Fura dels Baus. Her desperate realisation that she was being abandoned and her son removed saw her racing across the mighty outdoor stage in frantic anguish. It was devastating.

Robert Carsen’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Royal Opera, London (May): Carsen’s 2002 version, staged for the first time at Covent Garden this year, was exceptionally spare and beautiful. The set was almost non-existent, with the drama created by the women singing the doomed nuns and a vast force of chorus members, extra chorus and actors who formed a chilling, menacing mob. Simon Rattle conducted and Sally Matthews was a luminous Blanche. A special night.

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Mayakovsky, by Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon (July): Yes, SCO bobs up again. Seeing and hearing their work is as bracing as it gets. New music, new libretto, intelligent production, cracking performances. What’s not to like?

Don Giovanni, Opera Australia (July): Who knew the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage could look this big? Designer Robert Jones worked all sorts of magic for David McVicar’s Gothic-tinged production of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, strewing bones and skulls about and putting centre-stage an imposing stairway that was never going to lead to heaven. Our anti-hero was a dead man walking among the undead.

Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut Opera (December): Pinchgut knocked it out of the park again. Lindy Hume’s direction, Tony Assness’s set, Alistair Trung’s costumes and Matthew Marshall’s lighting were perfectly judged to make virtues of the City Recital Hall’s strict limitations for dramatic presentation. There’s nothing limited about the hall’s acoustic, in which the opera glowed. Caitllin Hulcup (Iphigénie) and Grant Doyle (Oreste) were on fire and the women of choir Cantillation, Pinchgut’s chorus of choice, were particularly outstanding. Under Antony Walker, the Orchestra of the Antipodes honoured Gluck’s ravishing music with a performance that made the senses reel and the heart sing.

MUSICAL THEATRE

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Broadway (February): If you’ve seen the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets you know the story (the source material is a book by Roy Horniman). Impoverished Monty Navarro discovers he comes from aristocratic stock. Only eight members of the D’Ysquith family stand between him and a title. Alec Guinness memorably played all members of that august family (called the D’Ascoynes in the movie); in this witty, sweet and beautifully staged musical that particular gauntlet was taken up by Jefferson Mays, who was pure delight. Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) and Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) wrote extremely jolly songs with a light music-hall touch that feels authentic. Monty’s love interests, Sibella Hallward and Phoebe D’Ysquith, are high soprano roles and the clear, silvery sound is a million miles away from the big power-ballad sound so often heard in contemporary musicals. Alexander Dodge’s set design put a dear little stage within the stage, complete with a swooshing red curtain that falls to hide the next scene change. And there were many, all executed with much flair.

What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, New York Theatre Workshop (February): The stage was decked out with a jumble of old sofas, a tower of guitars with a few other objects thrown in, rugs on the walls and many glowing lamps. It looked like an explosion in a student bedsit, only more welcoming. The show was devoted, obviously, to the songs of Burt Bacharach and his main-man lyricist Hal David (plus some others). The music issued in a continuous stream to suggest – nothing more – a scenario of love and loss and the songs stood up brilliantly to loving reinterpretation. What’s It All About? presumably introduced this imperishable repertoire to a generation not terribly familiar with it, but for someone of my age it was 90 minutes of bliss during which one smiled foolishly, mouthed the words, and thought of days now long gone.

Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre Co (February): It was down-sized, dirtied up and worked a treat. So much so that it’s soon embarking on a return season in rather bigger venues. Dean Bryant’s conception of the piece showed how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it was less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

The Drowsy Chaperone, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre at Hayes Theatre Co (March): This was one for the music-theatre nerds, and what a beauty. The Drowsy Chaperone purports to be the reflections of an everyman who just wants to take away from the theatre a tune he can hum, having enjoyed some pretty costumes, an amusingly tangled plot, a happy ending and definitely no audience participation. The show will preferably be short. On comes the musical within a musical, also called The Drowsy Chaperone. It is silly and formulaic, thus allowing The Drowsy Chaperone (the host musical) to shamelessly have it both ways. Creators Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) pay genuine homage to good old-fashioned entertainment while sending it up mercilessly. Our everyman, Man in Chair, yearns for the wit and glamour of Cole Porter but there is only the flimsiest facsimile of it in The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a reason they don’t make ‘em like that any more, but also why there’s nostalgia for earlier, more graceful times.

Miss Saigon, Cameron Mackintosh, London (May): Producer Cameron Mackintosh says it is the musical he was most asked to revive, so he did it. This Vietnam-war era version of Madama Butterfly has been given a terrific new production and its poignancies still resonate as vividly as they did when the show first opened in 1989.

Les Miserables, Cameron Mackintosh, Melbourne (July): The musical is still selling its socks off so this is a revival of something that never went away. It’s not subtle theatre or intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart; a big story told in bold strokes. The new version, which opened in Melbourne and is Sydney-bound, is very, very well done indeed.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret, starring Christie Whelan-Browne (August): I’d seen this before but it certainly bore repeating. Under the direction of Dean Bryant, who also wrote the show – him again! He’s everywhere! – Whelan-Browne channeled the pop star and her music to demonstrate the corrosive effect of fame on a kid who became the family bread-winner way, way too early. This wasn’t satire; it was tragedy. Whelan-Browne has performed Britney off and on for some years and it looks, sadly, as if it’s had its last outing.

Miracle City, Hayes Theatre Co (October): Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s 1996 musical finally got the revival so many music-theatre lovers wanted, and it was good. Barnstorming Christianity and a lust for worldly achievement combined to explode spectacularly within the 90-minute span of a Sunday morning televangelism show. Echoes of A Doll’s House were loud in Blazey Best’s terrific performance as an obedient wife who’d been married far too young.

The Legend of King O’Malley, Don’t Look Away (December): The rollicking Michael Boddy-Bob Ellis political musical got a rough-and-tumble revival that honoured the spirit of the piece and – ouch! – did not feel at all like a period piece.

On Monday: Dance

Abandon

School of Arts Theatre, Townsville, July 24.

I WAS much taken by the concept for Abandon. The word can mean to cut loose in a negative sense, to rid oneself of something or someone; or it can mean a surrender to ecstatic states. Dancenorth’s website promised heightened emotions – euphoria, jealousy, fury, madness and so on – but something more too, a particularly tantalising three-way artistic collaboration. The idea of Dancenorth’s artistic director Raewyn Hill, Opera Queensland’s artistic director Lindy Hume and boundary-stretching classical accordion virtuoso James Crabb getting together on a project was enticing. The icing on the cake was the music: Crabb would arrange Handel arias for himself and cellist Teije Hylkema. More than enough to get one on the plane to Townsville, in northern Queensland. (And I was far from the only person to have put in a lot of kilometres to get there.)

The challenge for complex collaborations – five dancers, four singers, three designers, two musicians, one composer – is getting the mix just right. Not too much of this, add a little of that, check the temperature, the texture, the balance, the structural soundness. In Abandon too many things are off, not necessarily by much, but by enough to compromise the success of the whole.

Alice Hinde and Monique Latemore in Abandon

Alice Hinde and Monique Latemore in Abandon

Abandon is set within a three-sided space of pale hue made from blocks that rise high above the performers and are malleable and responsive enough to be almost an additional performer. Throughout the 70 minutes of the piece entrances and exits, sheltering spaces and windows to the outside are created to great effect in Bruce McKinven’s set, glowingly lit by Bosco Shaw. Dancers, singers and musicians are dressed in covetable garments from a collection by Alistair Trung, mostly in black with some accents, but all different and all both flattering and appropriate for the ways in which the performers need to move.

So far so very good. The physical look is strikingly individual and Crabb’s interpretation of the music dramatic and assertive.

But then the trouble starts. An important part of the design is an increasingly disarrayed “floor” of plastic bags – visually interesting, fair enough conceptually and aurally irritating. There’s a hell of a racket as the urban detritus is scuffed around the space and it makes an acoustically tricky space even more so for the four young singers, sopranos Annie Lower and Monique Latemore, alto Elizabeth Lewis and bass Christopher Richardson.

Hill’s choreography requires the singers to be almost as active as the dancers and they do it gamely and effectively, but it’s very hard to ask them to assert young voices over the merry crackle of refuse. It didn’t surprise me that wayward pitch was occasionally an issue and that it was frequently difficult to discern exactly what was being sung. I couldn’t say Hume has discovered an exceptional Handelian in this group: while there were many lovely moments, the singers struggled to realise fully the different moods and qualities of the chosen arias, choruses and a duet, selected from Tolomeo, Orlando, Alcina, Hercules and Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Nevertheless, there is never a time at which Ah, mio cor! from Alcina is unwelcome, nor the glorious Stille amare from Tolomeo.

Elizabeth Lewis (foreground) in Abandon

Elizabeth Lewis (foreground) in Abandon

Truth to tell, taken out of context one Handel aria can sound fairly much like another, particularly when there are no surtitles to give a reference point, or at least they do in Abandon. Generalised angst rather than sexier abandon reigns and Hill’s choreography, often in unison, is mostly too repetitive to be of assistance. It’s a relief when veteran Bradley Chatfield, formerly of Sydney Dance Company and now Dancenorth’s dance director, performs a lively section based on boxing moves to accompany Affanno tiranno from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.

Hill’s arrangement of performers is most affecting and suits the music when she turns them into formal tableaux vivants. At times they lie beside one another, cram themselves into a small space in the wall, stand in lines, put a head on a shoulder or offer a gesture of consolation. When the dancers stagger, posture, and play with their hair the deliberate awkwardness conveys little other than awkwardness.

Right at the end there is a lovely moment of clarity as dancer Andrew Searle has an introspective solo to Stille amare. It’s an aria for a dying hero and Searle seems, appropriately, to be seeking release from the group. Alas, right at this point the group is moving boxes about. But there, with Hylkema’s cello making the spine shiver, despite the distracting busyness I felt a real emotional connection that trumped the exasperation that, for me, had so far predominated.

Abandon ends in Townsville on August 1. It is possible there will be performances in Brisbane next year.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian, July 26.