Jo Litson – Editor
Expectations were high and fingers tightly crossed that Muriel’s Wedding the Musical would live to up to the much-loved 1994 film on which it is based. Happily, it’s a triumph. Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall have written a glorious score, which finds an ingenious way to include the ABBA songs, and the show is superbly structured (book by PJ Hogan), staged and performed. The best new Australian musical for yonks, maybe ever.
In a delightfully suprising Sydney Festival event, eight dancers associated with Sydney Dance Company performed in the altogether among the works in the splendid Nude: Art from the Tate Collection exhibition at AGNSW. Rafael Bonachela’s playful, inventive choreography offered a profound insight into the art itself and life in general, and the nudity quickly felt very natural. A unique, special experience.
The chance to see superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann in Parsifal, even a semi-staged production, was a tantalising prospect – and he delivered in spades with a performance that combined honeyed vocals with sensitive acting. He was well matched by Michelle DeYoung as Kundry and Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz, among other strong vocal performances, while the orchestra was in fine form under conductor Pinchas Steinberg. An exhilarating night.
Dean Bryant directed his third musical for the Hayes, this time the venue’s first Sondheim, and once again it was a stunningly inventive production. A dark, revue-style show about nine men and women who tried to assassinate US presidents, it was dazzlingly staged (design by Alicia Clements) with a top cast led by David Campbell, and felt utterly timely.
Using her own severe scoliosis as part of her characterisation, Kate Mulvany gave an astonishing performance as Richard III. Without trying to play a man as such, she inhabited the role to such a degree she just was Richard – charming yet malevolent. Directed by Peter Evans, with Mulvany as dramaturg, the production, set in a gentleman’s club, was a ripper.
The Royal Ballet’s performances of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works and Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, Opera Australia’s production of Szymanowski’s King Roger, Taylor Mac’s Hir at Belvoir, Red Line Productions’ A View from the Bridge at the Old Fitz, Sydney Theatre Company’s Cloud Nine
Angus McPherson – Deputy Editor
The Book of Mormon. Photo © Jeff Busby
The musical penned by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez – whose credits include both Avenue Q and Disney’s Frozen – has been breaking records wherever it goes, including Melbourne (where it opened this year) and, no doubt, Sydney next year. It’s a fantastic show that’s absurdly funny and irreverent, but also beautifully crafted, with a great score and book drawing on the finest of musical theatre traditions.
American Soprano Brenda Rae’s Australian debut at the Melbourne Festival – backed up by musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music and conductor Benjamin Bayl – was definitely a highlight of 2017. Her sparkling coloratura soprano was captivating in her performance at Melbourne Recital Centre, and I can only hope she returns to Australia soon.
Australia boasts a bevy of fine period instrument bands these days, but this concert by the ARCO Chamber Soloists in September was particularly special. At the heart of the concert was the smooth, caramel sound of Nicole van Bruggen’s basset clarinet – a recreation of the one made by Mozart’s clarinettist Anton Stadler – in a performance of Mozart’s Quintet in A Major, K581
With an avalanche of awkward, cringe-worthy moments, Nakkiah Lui’s answer to Meet the Fockers was an absolute blast and well deserves next year’s encore season and tour. With a great cast led by Shari Sebbens, Black is the New White plunged the audience into a maelstrom of racial and gender politics while deftly riffing on the tropes of rom-coms and cringe-fest family holiday films.
Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Artist in Residence composer/conductor Brett Dean set the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall ablaze in October with Rachmaninoff on Fire. From Sibelius’ haunting Scene with Cranes through Dean’s own Fire Music and finally Rach 3 – dispatched with sculptural flair by Australian pianist Piers Lane – this was a beautifully programmed and stunningly performed concert.
Justine Nguyen – Staff Writer
A work without any true antecedents or heirs, Debussy’s only opera received a superb outing under the baton of Charles Dutoit and the Sydney Symphony this year. Fleet of foot and dangerously sensuous, their account was further elevated by last minute sub Michaela Selinger as Mélisande and the frightening, all too human Golaud of Marc Barrard.
A smart move by the SSO to programme Pelléas and Bartók’s darkly glamorous two-hander in the same season. With their shared themes of intimate, psychological violence, the works are natural bedfellows. David Robertson drew out the sighs, dripping blood, and enchantment of Bluebeard’s mansion of horrors, while John Relyea and Michelle DeYoung teased out the work’s complexities with vocal splendour.
Russian Songs (Opera Australia)
The closure of the Joan Sutherland Theatre this year saw Opera Australia try out a number of different formats and venues with differing degrees of success. But bringing in Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto to give two recitals was an inspired choice. Although his reading of Winterreise was dramatically and vocally commanding, it was his gripping delivery of songs by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky that allowed the old lion to demonstrate just what makes him the very best.
Mahler seemed to cradle the very world in his hands with his magisterial third symphony, and David Robertson and the SSO did not let him down. Never letting this mammoth work sag for even a moment, Robertson drew forth a breathtaking translucency in the finale that left one renewed, exhilarated and sorrowful all at once. Susan Graham’s sombre, wonder-infused solo contribution must not be discounted either.
Alison Whyte’s bravura assumption of Mary in Colm Tóibín’s 80-minute one-woman show was one of the highlights of the theatre season. Deeply hurt and laceratingly caustic, Whyte transformed a figure of reverence and sacrifice into a woman furious with her circumstances and fed up with the chatter of men.
Clive Paget – Editor at Large
It made a refreshing change to see a state symphony orchestra offering a gig to another orchestra’s Principal Conductor and Asher Fisch didn’t disappoint with a thrillingly cohesive reading of a tricky work. Fisch is a go-to in this repertoire from New York to Vienna and he elevated what some regard as mere flash and fluff to the level of a Bruckner or a Mahler symphony.
A pianist in her absolute prime, Angela Hewitt’s Musica Viva tour demonstrated a depth of knowledge and an affinity for a range of composers from her great passion, JS Bach, through Scarlatti to French colourists like Ravel and Chabrier. Beautifully programmed, each work shone a light on the next ending with a sublime Clair de Lune as encore that came up fresh as a daisy.
For those who thought they’d seen enough Traviatas to last a lifetime, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho proved diva enough to excite the most jaded of palates. Elijah Moshinsky’s beautifully observed period production provided the perfect vehicle for this intensely magnetic singing actress, whose hothouse flower Violetta duly broke the stoniest of hearts.
Barrie Kosky’s remarkable burst of operatic energy not only transformed Handel’s oratorio into a gripping and enthralling stage work, with a first-rate cast of international and Australian singers and the dynamic Erin Helyard in the pit, Saul has to have been the operatic event of 2016. Next year, the Festival presents Brett Dean’s Hamlet, also a must see.
No dated gender politics here. Virginia Gay’s brilliantly spirited and endearing assumption of the title role in Richard Carroll’s side-splitting reworking of the Doris Day vehicle meant this tiny jewel of a production hit every note square between the eyes and came with enough energy and heart to drive the Pony Express all the way ‘cross Injun territory and back again.
From Critics Around the Country
“This is authentic Shakespeare at its best, so finely honed that it’s remarkable to think that Pop-up Globe was born just last year. This Melbourne season is the first beyond its Auckland home, and I confidently predict it will go on to travel the world to great acclaim. Not to be missed!” – Patricia Maunder
“While the audience may not have reacted with shock and violence on this occasion, the orchestra certainly portrayed sounds to that effect and in particular through Danse des Adolescents (Dance of the Young Girls), and Glorification de l’elue (Glorification of the Chosen Virgin). This high-impact work secured a fantastically rowdy response from the audience.” – Stephanie Eslake
“As to be expected, the QSO’s Music Director, Mexican born Alondra de la Parra, was totally at home with both the style and rhythms of this Latin-inspired programme and she injected a joyful energy and passion into her conducting, which was exciting to watch. The orchestra embraced this new world music with equal enthusiasm, clearly playing instruments which many may never have played before. It was a privilege to hear such delightfully rich music, with which we are unfamiliar, played so enthusiastically and at such a high level of proficiency.” – Suzannah Conway
“This was a well-shaped programme with pieces that spoke to each other across the centuries. WASO are right to assume their audience wants to go deeper and the carefully-framed inclusion of Dorman’s contemporary work with Fisch’s insightful commentary is what set this concert apart.” – Rosalind Appleby
“This was a performance to be remembered and savoured, like the entire programme of the ASO’s first Mozart in Elder concert this season.” – Vincent Plush
“It was a sensational performance from orchestra and conductor alike, and received with thunderous applause from a most appreciative Melbourne audience.” – Lisa MacKinney