About last week … March 18-25

British director Matthew Warchus had two musicals open within about four months of one another. One was Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010 before opening in the West End in October the following year; and Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 film, which started life in Manchester, England, in March 2011. Ah well. Not everything can be one for the ages.

Ghost hasn’t been a disaster, although it didn’t win over Broadway. It had a respectable West End run, been on tours of the US and UK and has been seen in a dozen countries. But unlike Matilda, it has no particular distinction. The music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics, although it’s not easy to tell) and Glen Ballard are efficient at best and some of the lyrics, to which book writer Bruce Joel Rubin also contributed, are best forgotten, or at least easily forgotten.

After opening in Adelaide in January, the Australian production is now in Sydney until mid-May, after which it heads to Perth. Well, I say Australian production. Most of the cast are locals; the production itself is a replica, as is the way of international musicals.

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Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills in Ghost the Musical

When I saw it on March 19 I thought it conventional entertainment with a decent heart, engaging performances (from Jemma Rix as Molly in particular), too much reliance on projections that looked oddly old-fashioned and really naff choreography. Full marks to the creative team for not overplaying that pottery scene, although one suspects many in the audience are there for exactly that moment. There are few truly first-rate stage musicals made from a non-musical film: Dirty Dancing, no. Doctor Zhivago, no, although Lucy Simon’s score is attractive. An Officer and a Gentleman, no, no, no. (Incidentally, that trio all started life in Sydney in out-of-hemisphere tryouts.) It’s hard to live up to the audience’s expectations when a film has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps that why Little Shop of Horrors, based on a Roger Corman quickie filmed in just two days, is a winner. By the way, the brilliant new production of Little Shop that finished recently at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney opens in Adelaide on April 20, Melbourne and Canberra next month, then to Brisbane in July and back to Sydney.

On March 22 I went to the Sydney Opera House to see choreographers Lloyd Newson (on hiatus from the company he founded, DV8 Physical Theatre), Kate Champion (founder of Force Majeure) and Rafael Bonachela (artistic director of Sydney Dance Company) take part in a Culture Club talk. The title was Everyone Can Dance but fortunately moderator Caroline Baum said she didn’t know where that was meant to go and neither did anyone else. So they spoke about a lot of other stuff. The conversation ranged widely over issues such as the employment of diverse kinds of bodies in dance (disabled, larger than the norm, from different cultures and traditions), recent conversations in the UK about the quality of contemporary dance training and opportunities for female choreographers, and how each of the three speakers approaches dance-making.

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Baum, Newton, Champion and Bonachela in conversation. Photo: Prudence Upton

Newson addressed a particularly thorny issue when he said that a dancer such as David Toole, who has no legs, made him question what it meant to be able-bodied. Nevertheless, Newson still needed any dancer with whom he worked to have a certain level of expertise. “Do you make concessions?” (He doesn’t want to.) Bonachela talked a little about the difficulty of coming into Sydney Dance Company after the death of artistic director-designate Tanja Liedtke. If he was going to put his stamp on the company there would have to be changes. He said of himself: “I am optimistic by choice.”

Champion spoke of the differences between actors and dancers. “Dancers are very willing. They will do anything, go anywhere. Actors are sometimes not so willing,” she said, although she added that sometimes she wished dancers “would express their feelings a bit more and actors a bit less”. Her most intriguing comments were on opera. Champion was associate director on Neil Armfield’s production of the Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in 2013 and is again listed as that on OA’s website for the revival late this year in Melbourne. Opera is “not my favourite thing”, she said. She’d been told everyone should do one Ring Cycle in their life but having done it she says “opera is not my natural fit”. But she wanted to be out of her comfort zone, and did it because of her respect for Armfield.

The week’s three theatre productions could not have been more different. Brisbane outfit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s Wuthering Heights (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 22) was disappointing – too reliant on a narrator to tell the story and acted in blustery fashion. I very much enjoyed British company 1927’s Golem (Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, March 23), a surreal cautionary tale about the surrender of free will. And later that day I saw Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a full house that enjoyed it immensely. Some of the mainstream reviews were very sniffy indeed about Peter Evans’s production, which goes to show that so often the reviews really don’t matter. The energy of the young men in particular was charming and invigorating. It may not be an interpretation for the ages but it speaks to an audience, that much is clear. Romeo and Juliet is in Canberra until Saturday and opens in Melbourne on April 14.

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Turandot – this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Prudence Upton

This year’s opening performance of Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot – was blessed with perfect weather (March 24). Same thing for each of the four previous openings. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini must have special powers. My review in the London-based Opera magazine is yet to appear so I’ll confine myself to saying that the key singers in the first cast are first-rate – Dragana Radakovic (Turandot), Riccardo Massi (Calaf) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) – and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng gives the opera welcome ceremonial grandeur in place of ersatz exoticism. Dan Potra’s design is a beauty, dominated by a spiky tower and a fire-breathing dragon. The fireworks are placed rather strangely after Nessun dorma! but people cheered anyway. Turandot, which is double cast, runs until April 24 is a good’un.

‘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.