January 19, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Saul (Glyndebourne Opera)

The curtain rises on a large severed head sitting on a sea of crumbly black ash. As the camera pans in tightly, we see blood encrusted in the corner of the eyes and mouth, while one eye socket is smashed. It is the head of Goliath after his defeat by the triumphant young warrior David, now hero of the Israelites. Behind, an enormous table is heaped with floral arrangements, fruit, animal carcasses and an elegant swan. Clustered around the rather macabre banquet, the cast gleam in brightly coloured 18th-century costumes with extravagant wigs and make-up lending them a slightly crazed air. Bathed in Joachim Klein’s sickly lighting, the extravagant tableau looks like a warped Flemish still-life where everything is so lusciously overripe it will soon turn fetid.  So begins Barrie Kosky’s wildly imaginative production of Handel’s oratorio Saul, which received rave reviews when it premiered at Glyndebourne in 2015. Programmed as the centrepiece of the 2017 Adelaide Festival, here is a chance to see the original Glyndebourne cast, while the camera allows you an up-close look at the performers and vivid visual imagery. Working with designer Katrin Lea Tag, Kosky presents Handel’s original three acts in two parts: the first…

December 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Verismo (Anna Netrebko)

The much debated cover shot – there was a competition to redesign it – says a lot about Anna Netrebko’s approach to verismo, the late 19th-century phenomenon that sought to bring real flesh and blood onto the operatic stage. The choice of what appears to be several costumes at once – and all of them out of Game of Thrones – shows a muddy thinking about the genre, manifested in some odd choices. What is La Gioconda doing here? Some roles suit Netrebko better than others – she sounds too old for Butterfly, and definitely too heavy-voiced for Liù or Nedda. More mature characters like Tosca (Vissi d’arte is a real highlight), Adriana Lecouvreur and Boito’s Helen sit far better. Maddalena de Coigny in Andrea Chénier fits like a glove and her La mamma morta is often thrilling. La Wally’s Ebben? Ne andrò lontana also works well, the steel in the voice suiting this fierce maid of the mountain. As the voice has darkened, dramatic roles like Lady Macbeth have come within her compass. To judge from this recording, Turandot (again, technically not a verismo role) is one such. Opera houses should be booking her now! Inconsistencies abound, however, as…

December 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Puccini: Gianni Schicchi (LA Opera)

Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comedy, was the last in his penultimate opera, Il Trittico, premiered in New York in 1918.Schicchi, often performed separately, tells of a money-grabbing family undone by an unscrupulous lawyer. Apart from the lawyer, the only people to emerge unscathed are Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta (she of O mio babbino caro fame) and her lover Rinuccio. Puccini was an entertainer. He didn’t moralise in the way Verdi did, but his operas, despite years of sniffing from the musical establishment remain brilliant creations, with remarkable melodies and superb orchestrations. His flair for the dramatic is ever present and the matching of music to text is remarkable. Rinuccio’s glorious aria in praise of Florence, for example, is tucked seamlessly into the narrative.   Woody Allan directs adroitly, his added treats in no way undermining the work. The busy cast perform well, and although the days are long gone when opera singers could stand like statues, opera ‘acting’ still hovers. This is especially noticeable when the camera closes in on the action. Sadly, the audio recording is dead dull and the orchestra under Grant Gershon, performs perfunctorily. So buy it for Domingo’s saturnine Schicchi and Allen’s clever production.

December 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bryony Marks: The Happiness Box (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra)

Sergeant David Griffin was just 27-years old when he wrote The Happiness Box in wartime Singapore. The year was 1942, and the POW wished to create a story for Changi Jail’s child prisoners. Griffin’s fellow inmate Leslie Greener crafted illustrations (which form the cover of this release). Before the final product could be confiscated by the Japanese, the book was buried in an ammunition container for safekeeping, arriving in Australia after the war. It was published in 1947 and now almost seven decades later has been set to music by composer Bryony Marks. Quite a story, right? But despite its heavy history, this is a work that will reach many a child’s heart. It opens with conductor Brett Kelly introducing the instruments and their roles in shaping the characters, and then the Melbourne Symphony begins to tell the story with narration from Stephen Curry. It’s charming and frolicking, and rings with the memories of an Australian countryside Griffin may have yearned for during his captivity and creation of the book.  The work is fast-paced and inspires us to visualise Griffin’s story (without ever lingering for too long on any musical idea). Even for an adult listener, it’s a lot of…

December 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Weingärtner: Die Dorfschule (Deutschen Oper Berlin)

The Austrian Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) is nowadays best known for conducting the first recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies. In his own day, though, he was equally renowned as a composer, especially of symphonic music and opera. Die Dorfschule (The Temple School) was his tenth out of a grand total of 12. The plot comes from a gripping Kabuki play about 10th-century Japanese feudal politics. An exiled chancellor’s son, Kwan Shusai, has been secretly brought up by Genzo, a loyal samurai who, along with his long-suffering wife, is now running a school. When the noble, Matsuo, demands the boy’s severed head, Genzo murders a recently enrolled pupil instead. Only at the end do we discover the dead boy is actually Matsuo’s own son who he enrolled in Genzo’s school as a decoy to save the life of Kwan Shusai. A contemporary of Strauss, Weingartner’s music sounds a little leaner, yet he’s very much a student of the post-Wagner school. But where the symphonies are often sumptuous, Die Dorfschule has an austerity that marries perfectly with its grim tale of honour and sacrifice. Only in the Imperial march does the composer let his hair down.  The cast are splendid all…

November 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Emma Matthews: Agony and Ecstasy

If you’ve seen soprano Emma Matthews in an opera you will know that her performance lives long in the memory. It’s not just her glorious, limber voice that captures you but her remarkable acting ability. In short she lights up the stage. Witness the Aussie diva’s extraordinary and moving portrayal of Lucia’s madness a few seasons back for Opera Australia, or her vulnerability in La Traviata and comedic flair in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, playing superbly off buffo baritone supremo Paolo Bordogna. This theatrical quality adds immensely to her latest collection of bel canto gems, with ABC Classics following on from her triumphant 2010 Monte Carlo outing on Deutsche Grammophon. Featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Andrea Molino, and produced by acclaimed tonmeister Virginia Read, this offering is as good if not better than the yellow label one. Whereas on the former recording Matthews laid out her entire stall and gave us 21 songs over a generous 76 minutes, the new album offers greater cohesion with interconnected moments from La Traviata, Il Turco and a brace each from Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Puritani. It gets off to an effervescent start with Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Roméo et…

November 25, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Alcina (Aix-en-Provence Festival)

Katie Mitchell is a director who divides her audience. Some champion the probing psychology of her shows, their meticulous, realist visuals, their staunchly feminist agenda. Others balk at what they see as a prefab, one-size-fits-all approach. But whatever your camp, when Mitchell finds a show to suit her inherent sympathies the result is unassailable. This Alcina, originally staged for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival, is the director at her very best – a marriage of concept and psychology so instinctive, so exhilarating in its invention, that it’s impossible to imagine it bettered. Unpacking the limits of power in all its forms – love, magic, violence, authority – Handel’s opera is one of his most probing emotional portraits, and a piece ripe for Mitchell’s gaze. She pulls back the curtain on Alcina’s sorcery, revealing the blunt, unpalatable mechanisms behind her illusions, showing us the woman not the witch. Chloe Lamford’s designs place us in a decaying doll’s house of a set. Rooms are spread over two floors, but only the central salon is fully lit. Within this magic space Alcina (Patricia Petibon) and Morgana (Anna Prohaska) seduce and subdue their lovers, glorying in their youth and beauty. But as soon as they…

November 25, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne Opera)

Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio presents an Enlightenment-eye view of the Orient filled with the curiosity of the West for a culture that had receded from warlike enemy to mesmerising neighbour. David McVicar’s genius is to set it in period in this superbly acted production from Glyndebourne. Vicki Mortimer’s warm, detailed designs capture the lure of the Ottoman Empire while McVicar explores the tension between the Pasha (a convert to Islam – a fact usually cut) and Europeans whose ideas of freedom are challenged by a seductive captivity. Konstanze must choose between a sexy, decent man and a contracted marriage to a bit of a stuffed shirt. The dangerous reality of cultural incompatibility is played out between the feisty Blonde and the unmannerly Osmin. Robin Ticciati conducts the period Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with style and verve. Sally Matthews is a noble-voiced Kostanze, secure of coloratura. Martern aller Arten, set dangerously in the Pasha’s bedroom is electric. Edgaras Montvidas is slightly open-toned as Belmonte, but captures the prig who thinks shouting makes foreigners understand him better. Tobias Kehrer is a magnificent Osmin, a vocal dead ringer for Gottlob Frick, perfectly matched by Mari Eriksmoen’s cheeky Blonde. Franck Saurel…

November 17, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Jeremy Rose: Iron in the Blood (The Earshift Orchestra)

Jeremy Rose read The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ seminal account of Australia’s invasion, colonisation and transformation into a penal colony, in 2012. He was struck by the brutal reality faced by prisoners shipped over from the continent, as well as by the Indigenous population, and eventually found a way to engage with that dark history through music. Iron in the Blood is a series of scenes performed by Rose and the Earshift Orchestra, underscoring narrated excerpts of Hughes’ work, read by actors Philip Quast and William Zappa. The excerpts give an overview of the struggle of the convicts, as well as the cruelty of British officers and lawmakers. The descriptions of the treatment of the original population – particularly the genocide of Tasmania’s Aboriginals – are harrowing. Musically, Iron in the Blood is an eclectic experience. Tracks draw on more conventional jazz idioms, while art music traits are present too, including sonic landscapes with dislocated, chromatic harmonies and extended instrumental effects. Some of the most intriguing features are the extended, frantic, improvised solos, often underscoring the most disturbing parts of the narration.   Individual performances and sound are excellent, and the narrations are enjoyable both on a theatrical and educational…

November 17, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: La Forza del Destino (Bavarian State Opera/Asher Fisch)

Despite a sprawling plot that offers precious little in the way of hope for humanity, La Forza del Destino is blessed with one of Verdi’s finest scores. Martin Kušej’s psychologically complex staging for Bavarian State Opera won’t appeal if you’re looking for a chocolate-box production, but it packs a punch and makes much sense of this rambling Spanish Revengers Tragedy.  Set in a world of scrappy urban warfare, the kind haunting many a modern war zone, it conveys a constant threat of terrorist atrocities. The direction has its unrealistic moments – people leap, roll and slide on and off the family dining table like nobody’s business, while simulated sex and Verdi don’t always gel – but its visceral nature tallies with the opera’s grim themes of honour and revenge, and  graphic imagery of modern-day massacres will strikes chords. Musical standards are very high indeed, with Asher Fisch leading a dramatically punchy reading of the score. Kaufmann is thrilling, yet subtle as Don Alvaro and, despite a silly wig, puts in a convincing portrayal. Anja Harteros is a perfect, neurotic Leonora, voice rich and text imaginatively handled. Ludovic Tézier is a robust Don Carlo, Vitalij Kowaljow plays powerful double roles, and…

November 17, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Lerner & Loewe: Paint Your Wagon (New York City Centre Encores)

Paint Your Wagon is one of those shows that, despite the fine craft of its lyricist and composer, proved difficult to revive thanks to a less than compelling book. A morality play set in gold-rush California, grizzly Ben Rumson and his daughter Jennifer strike gold and found Rumson Town attracting a horde of roughnecks. Jennifer falls for Mexican Julio Valvera so is packed off east for schooling, but not before Dad purchases a Mormon’s spare wife. Jennifer returns but the gold has run out so she and Julio settle down to farm the ravaged land.  The show opened in 1951 but ran for a disappointing 289 performances, doing better in the 1953 West End run with 477. I Talk To The Trees and They Call The Wind Maria became popular hits. Years later Hollywood took a sledgehammer to the book, dropped several fine songs with replacements penned by André Previn and let loose Josh Logan who, despite his Broadway origins, had a knack for spoiling fine shows on celluloid. The result was an overwrought mess at a somnolent 158 minutes with Lee Marvin’s Ben Rumson a drunken buffoon mugging for the camera and growling out Wand’rin Star.  A radical ‘revisal’…

November 17, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Le Concert Royal de la Nuit

Louis XIV was 15 in 1653 when he took part in a lavishly staged ballet performed on seven evenings in the Salle du Petit-Bourbon at the Louvre Palace. It was engineered by his ministers as a clever piece of political propaganda to cement the divine authority of the monarch along with a centralised government after the unrest of the Fronde rebellions. The spectacle was remembered for decades after and gave Louis his title of “the Sun King”; the four “watches” of the night with some sinister post-midnight revelries culminated in a glorious dawn with the King strutting his stuff in a costume of glittering celestial glory. Sébastien Daucé has spent three years recreating this work from fragments and disparate sources; a project of great scholarship, integrity and imagination. Amongst the anonymous dance tunes, and those of Jean de Cambefort, Daucé has interpolated airs du cour by Michel Lambert and Antoine Boësset, while scenes from Cavalli’s Ercole Amante and Rossi’s Orfeo have been added to remind us of the dominance of Italian opera in Parisian theatres before Lully. Ensemble Corespondances are superb exponents of this rarefied repertoire and the expansive forces of 18 voices and 33 instrumentalists deliver spine-tingling results.  Daucé’s…

October 21, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Sullivan: HMS Pinafore

The fourth of Gilbert and Sullivan’s remarkable operettas was HMS Pinafore, almost stillborn due to a heatwave that kept the public out of the stifling theatre in 1878. It was eventually saved by Sullivan playing excerpts at some prom concerts and the rest is history. This recording is from a concert performance made in August 2015 at the Edinburgh Festival, and while it doesn’t supersede the excellent recordings currently available, it is good to have a fresh take. Instead of dialogue, for example, Tim Brooke-Taylor provides the narrative and droll comments between the numbers. Andrew Foster-Williams’ Captain Corcoran is strong, if a little strained at times. Elizabeth Watts brings to Josephine a bit more spunk than is usual; this character can sometimes be a bit wet and she makes much of her splendid second act aria. Neal Davies is an excellent Dick Deadeye. As the hero, Ralph, Toby Spence is equally effective. John Mark Ainsley’s Sir Joseph is far too mannered for me. Conductor Richard Egarr keeps the music moving; Pinafore almost conducts itself unless you get in the way. As an aside, there are many reasons why these operettas have proved such useful school shows: the music is bright…