Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Operatic thriller

Review: Freeze Frame Opera, Tosca ⋅
Centenary Pavilion, Claremont Showgrounds, June 8 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Tosca is opera’s closest thing to a thriller. Puccini’s late romantic opera with its jealous lovers, political activism and gender violence is set within Napoleon’s imminent invasion of Rome and unfolds in a seamless blend of arias, recitatives and choruses.

The design team behind Freeze Frame Opera’s groundbreaking productions of La Boheme and Pagliacci have transformed the Centenary Pavilion at the Claremont Showgrounds into an opera set of cinematic proportions. In typical FFO style the opera has been trimmed and subtitles adjusted to sharpen the action, but the key elements remain and purists won’t be offended. Plus the audience gets to experience the show from grandstand seating while enjoying pizza and beverages – what’s not to love?

Director Rachel McDonald has updated the opera to the Cold War. On opening night crackling loudspeakers announce the escape of the political prisoner Angelotti, who staggers into the pavilion through a side door.  The painter Cavaradossi and his lover the famous singer Tosca help him escape and the suspense begins as Scarpia, the chief of police begins to hunt them down.

Robbie Harold’s set design makes fabulous use of the pavilion, maximising its vastness for the Act One cathedral and Act Three warehouse (with prisoners arriving for execution in the trunk of a vintage car). Even more impressive was the almost claustrophobic intimacy achieved in Act Two. Curtains framed the chief of police Scarpia’s office, revealing at various points Scarpia showering (in silhouette) and the graphic torture of Cavaradossi (a dramatically committed Jun Zhang) taking place. Meanwhile front and centre Scarpia (a menacing James Clayton) attempts his final conquest: the rape of Tosca.

Harriet Marshall as Tosca, wreaking her revenge on Scarpia (James Clayton). Photo Robert Frith.

But Scarpia’s political and social power is crumbling and as Tosca wreaks her revenge police agent Spoletta (cast in a fabulous twist as a woman) watches with grim satisfaction. This is a post #metoo Tosca (sung by Harriet Marshall) who takes charge, masterminds rescues and brings hope to those around her, ultimately at great cost.

McDonald’s characteristic attention to detail deepens the story. The meta-narrative is elucidated by Mia Holton’s video projections (Scarpia’s face is superimposed onto the Madonna, Tosca becomes a poster girl for the revolution) while McDonald’s stage direction draws out extremes of tenderness and violence from her cast. Even Jerry Reinhardt’s lighting helps develop character (a halo spotlight for Scarpia) and Tommaso Pollio at the piano invests Puccini’s voluptuous score with real emotion.

Clayton is terrifying as a vocally imposing, glass-smashing Scarpia and Pia Harris is a mix of swagger and frustration as the bullied Spoletta. Kristin Bowtell is a desperate Angelotti and Robert Hoffmann doubles as the Sacristan and Jailer. Zhang, his voice a little worse for wear, nevertheless steals the show with his exquisitely intimate O dolci mani (Oh sweet hands). Gliding through it all is Marshall, singing with vocal splendour as the glamorous, jealous, terrified and gutsy heroine.

FFO has done it again; don’t miss this thrilling night at the opera!

Tosca continues at the Centenary Pavilion until June 14.

Pictured top:  Scarpia (James Clayton) seducing the unwilling Tosca (Harriet Marshall). Photo by Robert Frith.

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Music, News, Opera, Performing arts, Reviews

Extreme makeover for opera

Review: Freeze Frame Opera, Pagliacci ·
Camelot Theatre, Mosman Park, 9 June ·
Reviewed by Tiffany Ha ·

There’s been a steadily growing buzz around Freeze Frame Opera since its launch in 2016. According to its website bio, the small, cutting-edge company is a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to showcase the traditional genre in new and exciting ways, to make opera “accessible, affordable and appealing”.

I am in full support of this endeavour. Throughout my many years of music study – and well into my twenties – I never connected with opera. It felt alienating. I was bewildered by the female characters, whose on-stage activities were limited to pining, seducing, being captured, or being punished*. This, combined with the substantial investments required just to attend the darn thing (time, money, clothes that aren’t jeans), gave me the belief that opera is not for me.

On Saturday night, however, Freeze Frame Opera (FFO) made me reconsider my stance on traditional opera, with its gritty and boldly-stylised interpretation of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The tragicomic opera premiered in Milan in 1892; today it is one of the most-performed operas in the repertory. The story centres on a troupe of travelling clowns who, in FFO’s production, are characterised as general actors and performers – there is not a clown-suit in sight.

Pagliacci
Far removed from traditional opera: Paul O’Neill as Canio, Jun Zhang as Beppe and members of the chorus in Freeze Frame Opera’s Pagliacci. Photo: Robbie Harrold.

In fact, all the visual elements of the production – the set, costuming, props, the overall colour-scheme – are far removed from what you’d expect from traditional opera. Instead of a nineteenth-century Italian village, we find ourselves in Boganville, Australia, 1974, in a groovy caravan park complete with astroturf and garish portable outdoor furniture. In the opening scene we see two families (Canio’s and Beppe’s) enjoying a summer holiday together: one of the boys saunters in with his billy and camping swag; some teenagers trickle in, wearing bathers and boardies, hair still damp from the beach; the dads are manning the Weber, handing out sausages wrapped in white bread; the kids are running and playing; the women are dressed in bright paisley frocks, reading magazines and smoking cigarettes.

The realism of FFO’s Pagliacci was delectable. And it never felt forced or ad-hoc, because Leoncavallo wrote the opera in the verismo style – a post-Romantic operatic tradition that focuses on the experiences of ordinary human beings, as opposed to those of gods, kings and the aristocracy. At times, the performance felt less like opera, and more like soap opera.

That’s by no means a criticism of the cast’s acting and singing, though. The performers could just as easily have been on larger stages in fancier opera houses. Michael Lewis added thoughtfulness and depth to the character of Tonio – a creepy old janitor who meddles in everyone else’s affairs, grumbling in baritone asides. Tenor Paul O’Neill was powerfully convincing as Canio (the hero, and “prince of clowns”); I nearly cried during his aria about the pain of being betrayed by his wife, and the further pain of having to hide it in order to perform and make others happy.

Pagliacci
Tenor Paul O’Neill was powerfully convincing as Canio. Photo: Robbie Harrold.

Soprano Harriet O’Shannessy (who played Nedda, Canio’s wife) was the true star of the show, however. I imagine the take-away from Leoncavallo’s original Pagliacci was that Nedda got what was coming to her. But in FFO’s production, the character is charming, likeable, multi-dimensional and real. O’Shannessy’s Nedda ranged from charming, sassy and gutsy to irreverent, fearful and sullen – impressive ground to cover in such a short performance. We could see why Nedda had many admirers, including her secret lover, Silvia**, who was so well-played by mezzo-soprano Caitlin Cassidy that there was never any hint that her role had originally been written for a man.

Staging operas in smaller venues and with tighter budgets means there’s often no room for an orchestra. Fortunately, FFO’s musical director, Tommaso Pollio, is an accomplished pianist. He played the orchestral reduction of the original score on a grand piano, in front of the stage and off to the side. At times, the piano accompaniment set an intimate, heady mood, as if we were in a late-night cabaret show at Fringe World. Other times, the piano was massive and exclamatory, filling up the space and underscoring the drama as well as an entire orchestra could. It was also nice to be able to see Pollio; traditionally the orchestra is unseen, relegated to the pit underneath the stage.

FFO’s Pagliacci is showing at the Camelot Theatre until this Sunday, but – unfortunately for those who don’t have tickets – it’s completely sold out. Instead, you can keep up to date with future Freeze Frame Opera events by visiting their website. And yes, you can wear jeans; you can even drink beer.

*This applies only to the important female characters. The unimportant ones are relegated to prancing, gossipping, admonishing, and general chorus-commentary. I still hold hope that there’s something in the opera canon that might pass the Bechdel test; if you know of one, please comment below!

**Is it just me, or is 2018 the year of #lesbiansinopera?

Pictured top: Jun Zhang as Beppe and Harriet O’Shannessy as Nedda. Photo: Robbie Harrold.

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