A new production of Wagner’s final opera Parsifal inaugurates Victorian Opera’s 2019 season, an intriguing mix of the familiar and new. With a cast to rival the one Opera Australia put together for its concert performances in 2017, the titular Holy Fool will be performed by German tenor Burkhard Fritz, an experienced Parsifal who’s sung the role in European houses and under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. Swedish mezzo Katarina Dalayman, herself a distinguished Kundry, will bring her celebrated interpretation of Wagner’s cursed temptress to Melbourne, alongside the towering Gurnemanz of British bass Peter Rose, yet another experienced Wagnerian. Australian bass-baritone Derek Welton, who impressed with his Klingsor at this year’s Bayreuth Festival, will reprise the role in this new staging from Roger Hodgman. Artistic Director Richard Mills conducts the Australian Youth Orchestra in what he calls “a mystical testament to the power of harmony and sound.”
Parsifal. Photo © Victorian Opera
“It’s my favourite Wagner opera,” he says. “There’s something about the sound world and the musical language that’s immensely appealing to me. It’s an extraordinary document so it’s a great privilege to be able to do it, and with such a great cast.
“I think the interesting thing is it came about because other people wanted to do it as well. It’s something that Roger Hodgman has been very interested in and the wonderful Australian Youth Orchestra wanted a big, juicy, meaty Wagner project to sink their teeth into to begin the year, so it met needs on a number of fronts.”
Richard Mills. Photo © Charlie Kinross
Then in June, Victorian Opera continues its acclaimed performances of Sondheim musicals with A Little Night Music, to be directed by Stuart Maunder and conducted by Music Director Phoebe Briggs. This bittersweet exploration of missed opportunities boasts another top-notch cast, headed by Ali McGregor as Desiree Armfeldt and Simon Gleeson as Fredrik Egerman. After her turn in Sunday in the Park with George in 2013, the legendary Nancye Hayes returns as Madame Armfeldt, with Samuel Dundas also returning to take on the role of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm after his portrayal of Debussy’s Pelléas for the company.
“The Sondheim tragics, some of them don’t like it [VO’s productions of his musicals] because they come from a very strong music theatre background, but the pieces we’ve done are all ones that lends themselves to production by an opera company,” says Mills. “This is particularly so with A Little Night Music because the singing really needs to be beautiful. We’ve built a reputation with these productions, and our approach to it draws talents like Nancye as well as Stuart, who is a very fine director of Sondheim and of musical theatre.”
Jessica Pratt. Photo © Victorian Opera
Those itching for more operatic fare should look no further than the return of superstar soprano Jessica Pratt in July, where she’ll be giving a one-off concert celebrating bel canto heavyweights Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. She’ll be joined by the esteemed Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, as well as the returning tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas. Mills conducts.
“We’re really the bel canto company of Australia,” he says proudly. “And if all our stars align, we’ll be doing more of this repertoire in 2020, a serious production of a major bel canto work with a great cast. But we have done our four Bellinis and I thought it would be nice to create a little space to have a concert to introduce people further to the world of bel canto, the world of Donizetti and Rossini. Some of their lesser known operas will open the door for people to have a wider knowledge of this wonderful repertoire. There are some great pieces that we never hear in Australia.”
Mills promises that the recital will be “a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar”, and with Pratt and Barcellona having both appeared in Rossini’s Semiramide to acclaim, he says it’s a safe bet that audiences will get to hear some of the opera seria over the course of this tantalising evening.
The Barber of Seville. Photo © Victorian Opera
Although any other company programming The Barber of Seville would hardly merit a mention, VO’s new production is an obvious continuation of its interest in the bel canto, moving away from the melting melodies of Bellini to the fireworks of Rossini. The much-loved comedy will be directed by Elizabeth Hill and seen in Tasmania before it heads to Melbourne, continuing the company’s association with the state as well as the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Mills leads the TSO and then Orchestra Victoria in the work.
“It’s so much fun,” he says. “It’s a wonderful night in the theatre and it’s hilarious, but it needs to be beautifully sung and luckily we’ve got a great cast.”
It certainly does, with rising Italian mezzo Chiara Amarù making her company debut as Rosina, a role she’s performed to acclaim in Europe. She joins an impressive Australian cast that includes Brenton Spiteri as her lover Almaviva, Warwick Fyfe as her troublesome keeper, Doctor Bartolo, and José Carbó in his calling card role of the wily Figaro.
And continuing its strong commitment to audience building and youth engagement, VO presents two works geared toward younger audiences in June and October. The first, Alice Through the Opera Glass, is a pastiche using the music of Bizet, Delibes and Puccini, which will see Lewis Carroll’s hardy heroine and the White Rabbit encountering a host of operatic characters. Alice will be staged by Elizabeth Hill, and involve two emerging artists at the helm – Simon Bruckard, who conducts, and Emma Muir-Smith, who has conceived the text. Both are also involved with VO’s new opera, The Selfish Giant.
The Selfish Giant. Photo © Victorian Opera
“The Selfish Giant is being written by two performing young opera artists, composer Simon Bruckard and librettist Emma Muir-Smith,” enthuses Mills. “Simon is a phenomenal young musician, a gifted conductor and pianist, while Emma was a part of our young artist program as a mezzo. She successfully completed that course and is now doing a course in libretto writing at RADA in England.”
“She’s got a great sense of theatre and the pair of them have come up with an utterly charming work which will speak to young people and to people who have a bit of youth in their hearts, which is everybody I think,” Mills says. “They’ve done a wonderful job of making something that is immediately appealing and will engage young audiences.”
Based on the Oscar Wilde story, The Selfish Giant will be performed by the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble and various youth opera artists, with Bruckard to conduct. Staged by Cameron Menzies, it tells the story of a misanthropic giant who bars children from entering his garden, leading it to lie forever dormant.
With our conversation drawing to an end, I return to Mills’ hint about VO’s upcoming new production of a bel canto opera in 2020. Though he’s naturally reluctant to give away details at this moment in time, after some gentle nudging he admits it “could be by Rossini.”
“One of the big ones. They’re wonderful works and we’ve got the singers for it, many of them Australian.” Hear, hear.