Adelaide Festival opening weekend

Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, who have signed on as joint artistic directors for three Adelaide festivals (this year, 2018 and 2019), set the bar high on their first opening weekend and floated over it with ease. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it looked easy. It can’t be underestimated how much work went into securing the Glyndebourne Saul, directed by Barrie Kosky, for an exclusive Adelaide season and to restage it with mostly new singers and musicians, so all hail to Armfield and Healy. And, of course, they had to pay for it. It’s a mammoth show.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Saul - L-R Adrian Strooper

Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Saul was, of course, always going to be a hot ticket. The prospect of seeing Kosky’s vastly admired production of Handel’s oratorio saw opera-lovers poised over their keyboards months ago to pounce on tickets as soon as they were released. Those secured, one then had to be quick to get into Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. There were only two performances of a dance work that has shaken audience members to their core wherever it has been seen and seats quickly went.

Also on this first weekend, the Schaubühne Berlin Richard III had a particular pull for those who had seen its star, Lars Eidinger, as an unpredictable and entertaining Hamlet at the 2010 Sydney Festival, although the fame of the company was recommendation enough. There was also the revival of Armfield’s production of The Secret River (which unfortunately I couldn’t see), taken out of a theatre building and staged in the Anstey Hill quarry, reportedly to great advantage. There was more, but these were the most prominent events.

Saul which premiered at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 2015, is everything one had been led to expect, only more so. More electrifyingly immediate in effect, more ravishing in design, more complex in its theatrical exploration of the text and more thrillingly performed. Saul is by turns celebratory, brutal, grotesque, tender and bleak. In Kosky’s hands it becomes an intensely human story of conflict and a proud leader brought low by jealousy.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Saul - L-R Christopher Purves (lying)

Christopher Purves (lying) as Saul, Christopher Lowery as David and Adrian Strooper as Jonathan in Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Baroque specialist Erin Helyard, artistic director of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, was in sparkling form as conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and managed to appear on stage as well as a striking chamber organ soloist (chorus master Brett Weymark, associate conductor for Saul, was on hand to pick up the baton when Helyard was otherwise engaged).

A much smaller work but no less affecting, Betroffenheit was created as a response to one man’s devastating loss, grief, guilt, despair and, ultimately, need to go on. Its first half is a wild, vivid and fantastical journey through anguish and addiction; the second a restrained, pure dance recapitulation of the material that brings a sense of resolution, or as much as might be possible.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Betroffenheit - 37 - pic credit Shane Reid

The cast of Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. Photo: Shane Reid

Writer and actor Jonathan Young is the man whose pain lies at the heart of Betroffenheit. His young daughter and two of her cousins died in a fire, and while the work doesn’t go into great detail about the tragedy, Young’s appearance as the central character makes Betroffenheit intensely personal even as its concerns could be those of anyone who has suffered as he did.

Pite is a choreographer whose movement, no matter how apparently abstract, has emotional force. The dancers, in particular Jermaine Spivey as Young’s inner voice, were spectacularly good as the glitzy, hopped-up demons seducing and assailing this broken man.

It’s no surprise that Pite has of late become much sought after in the classical world as well as the contemporary sphere. She is a tremendous artist.

I was much less taken with Richard III than I had hoped but two out of three and all that … Many thanks, by the way, to Armfield and Healy for programming in a way that made it possible to see Betroffenheit (5pm) and Richard III (8pm) on the same day. Not every festival director does this but it made sense to think about the large contingent of interstate visitors who wanted to see both pieces on Saturday after the Saul opening on Friday.

Lars Eidinger’s bovver-boy Richard isn’t short of confidence, that’s for sure. He’s happy to strip off to show Lady Anne the goods on offer, he barks and croons into a microphone like a low-rent nightclub performer who is unaware he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and he takes a piss in public just because he can. He wears close-fitting headgear that suggests a readiness to use himself as a battering ram; or alternatively advises he’s a seriously unwell man who binds his forehead to keep his brains from falling out.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Richard III - Lars Eidinger in front - 04 - pic credit Tony Lewis

Lars Eidinger (front) as Richard III. Photo: Tony Lewis

There’s not much charm, to put it mildly, nor an overwhelming sense of menace. The lack makes Richard’s success as an arch-manipulator unconvincing. The words are there (mostly in German with English surtitles, occasionally in English) but why they work as Richard intends is a mystery.

Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne Berlin production begins with a bang but as it unfolds, interval-less, for two and three-quarter hours the energy dissipates. On Saturday night Eidinger seemed to feel that he wasn’t winning the entire audience over as he would wish. Several times he ostentatiously looked across his shoulder at the surtitles as if to question why there wasn’t more of a reaction. (I have to assume he wasn’t checking that the surtitle operator was doing a good job of keeping up.) And when Eidinger urged the audience to shout demeaning phrases at Buckingham there was by no means a general rush to take up the offer.

Ostermeier’s ending was practical, in that it eliminated the battle at Bosworth Field and left us with a Richard so spooked by the ghosts of those he’d murdered that he went entirely mad, although such a result didn’t seem to follow necessarily from what had gone before. Nor did Richard’s final action, a re-run of the fate of Kevin Spacey’s Richard in the Old Vic version that toured widely. The impulse behind the image differed in the two productions, however, and I didn’t buy what Ostermeier was selling.

Saul and Richard III both end on March 9.

Giasone

Pinchgut Opera, City Recital Hall, December 5.

IT’S no wonder Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone was the hit of 1649, the most performed opera of that year. The bigger mystery is why it’s rarely seen now. Giasone is a rousing, expertly constructed sex comedy that throws in low humour, high drama, a bit of magic and a love tangle of some complexity, including the wrong lover being chucked off a cliff. What’s not to like?

David Hansen and celeste Lararenko in Pinchgut Opera's Giasone. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko in Pinchgut Opera’s Giasone. Photo: Keith Saunders

But there’s more: Giasone is underpinned by an affecting strain of deep, raw emotion, expressed in page after page of ravishing music. In Pinchgut Opera’s production – the Australian premiere – this dynamic score enchanted as much as it must have more than 350 years ago. A fine, well-balanced cast was headed by astounding countertenor David Hansen in the title role, the Orchestra of the Antipodes is in fine fettle, and if there was anything more joyous than the full-body conducting of Erin Helyard I hadn’t seen it in a long while.

You may know Giasone – Jason – as the hero on a mission to capture the fabled Golden Fleece, accompanied, of course, by his Argonauts. Alternatively, what first comes to mind may be the love-rat whose lack of constancy drove Medea to murder their sons. Giacinto Andrea Cicognini’s libretto for Cavalli takes a different tack. It is concerned with the fleece only tangentially and no children were harmed in the making of this work. Jason is, however, still a first-class love-rat.

Sexual passion is the driver of this plot and in the first minutes we hear of the female wiles that ensnare men, who are made helpless by their desires. Enter Hansen’s Giasone to sing Delizie e contenti, the dreamy aria aptly described by one scholar as an expression of “post-coital languor”. As Ercole (Hercules) comments, Giasone “never tires of giving”. Quite. Director Chas Rader-Shieber underscored the point by having Hansen appear bare-chested most of the time in circumstances where it may not have been entirely necessary from a dramatic perspective. Not to mention that we first saw Giasone taking a bubble bath while wearing nothing but his plumed helmet, attended by various of his Argonauts, also bare-chested. Yes, it was the tiniest bit Village People, but highly enjoyable.

Uncut, Giasone would take more than four hours to play, excluding intervals, although the music is so richly textured, varied and dramatically satisfying that you’d gladly hear it all. Infectious dancing rhythms, melting laments and lively comic numbers ease in and out of recitative seamlessly in Helyard’s racy reduction. It leaves out minor characters but essentially everything is there, and in not much more than about two and a half hours of music, which was directed superbly by Helyard from the harpsichord.

Rader-Shieber’s production was acted out on a simple but effective set, which he co-designed with Katren Wood. A couple of doors, a recessed chamber and some entrances and exits via the auditorium (these the least successful aspect) were sufficient to the task at hand. On one side of the ledger are the lower orders pragmatically deciding it’s most sensible to love the one you’re with. On the other, two queens battle almost to the death to win Giasone.

Sopranos Miriam Allan (Isifile) and Celeste Lazarenko (Medea) were a riveting pair of antagonists, representing the forces of constancy versus lust. Allan had some difficult tonal shifts, from down-trodden to majestic in her fidelity, and handled them with grace and clarity. Looking lovely in a long gown with a full skirt, Allan sang with purity and immense feeling.

Lazarenko was a compelling object of desire in her slinky red gown. While Lazarenko doesn’t have the ideal weight of voice for the exciting aria Dell’antro magico, in which Medea summons supernatural help for Giasone, she was otherwise fascinating, singing with sensuous warmth.

Giasone is a far from admirable character, not even winning the fleece through his own powers as Medea’s other-worldly contacts help carry the day. Hansen’s advantage was his stratospherically high countertenor, which gleams brightly and pours out with voluptuous ease. With that at his command he managed to ingratiate, even if you never quite believed these women would give up everything they hold dear for him. He was affecting in Giasone’s 11th-hour volte face, one of those moments similar to the Count’s capitulation at the end of The Marriage of Figaro.

The libretto and the music are somewhat at odds in this aspect of Giasone. Time and again the music for Giasone and Medea is unambiguously and almost overpoweringly erotic and the lovers are the only characters whose voices entwine, which they do in intoxicating fashion. But they will not end up together. Rader-Shieber made a wise little nod to this in the opera’s final seconds.

The City Recital Hall provided the happiest of spaces for all voices. The supporting cast members offered enjoyably vivid characterisations, particularly Christopher Saunders as the blustering, stuttering Demo and Andrew Goodwin as the noble and nobly sung Egeo. Adrian McEniery had a few wobbly moments vocally as Delfa but was in amusing cross-dressing form as he rocked a pink Chanel-style suit and pearls. David Greco’s Oreste and Nicholas Dinopoulos’s Ercole most ably played the part of long-suffering supporters to their betters as did young Alexandra Oomens, in prettily fresh voice as the attendant Alinda.

The story, absurd though it is on the surface, is touchingly truthful and universal in its understanding of how love binds, pains and deceives. The production adds more well-deserved laurels to Pinchgut’s brow. And it’s splendid news that next year will bring a second opera from this wonderful company.