a king spotlit on a dark stage, with witches in the shadows
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Magnificent Macbeth

Review: West Australian Opera, Macbeth ⋅
His Majesty’s Theatre, 19 October ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

West Australian Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth must be one of the best offerings in Australian opera in recent years, a complete success in almost every aspect. The work in itself is an excellent distillation of the Shakespeare play, with great clarity of story-telling, musical characterisation and atmosphere aplenty just waiting to be brought to life by creative operatic forces.

With respect to the staging, Roger Kirk’s simple but clever set comprised a combination of large moveable uprights and lighting effects with bursts of dry ice  brilliantly reflecting the creepy environs of the witches and gloomy Scottish castles, the latter enhanced as appropriate by sumptuous costuming depicting the courtly scenes of Duncan’s visit to Glamis castle and the crowning of the Macbeths.  The witches – in the opera Verdi multiplies the original three into three sections of a women’s choir – are suitably weird in black gowns with large-toothed necklaces, the male nobles are represented as barbaric warriors, all kilts and furs and crossed swords, while Lady Macbeth appears initially in her underwear (bodice and long underskirt), but wears a truly magnificent red and gold gown in her stately scenes. The courtiers define the period with sixteenth century starched ruffs and Elizabethan hairdos.  It is clear that director Stuart Maunder and the designer Roger Kirk were sharing a coherent vision. The coming of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane was wonderfully effected by shafts of green light cutting through the darkling stage, and the battle at the end was one of the best staged fight scenes I have seen, where you could easily track who was doing what to whom in a convincing fashion.

Antoinette Halloran and James Clayton as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Photo James Rogers.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra play magnificently under Brad Cohen, with every nuance and dynamic subtlety of the score brought forth without ever overriding the singers.  The WA Opera Chorus is exemplary, moving confidently around the stage whether representing witches, warriors or courtiers and singing with precision and conviction.

James Clayton in the baritone title role cements his reputation as an operatic star. His voice is resonant and accurate and he projects charisma and authority as a leader, no less convincing in his deterioration and desperation as he follows the course he has set himself. Both opera and play are usually considered to be a morality tale on the dangers of blind ambition, not to mention warnings against heeding false prophets (there is a view this was originally aimed at James I and VI who was unduly preoccupied with witches), but there is also the influence of the ultimate power wife.

The motivation of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth is somewhat more obscure than that of Shakespeare’s. In the play we find out early on that Lady Macbeth bore a child who has somehow disappeared from the Macbeths’ lives, presumably dying young. Verdi omits this information and we are left with a far less sympathetic character who seems bent on evil almost for its own sake.  The character has been portrayed by many a famous soprano, and often tends toward caricature. Antoinette Halloran teeters on that edge, but overall manages a convincing portrait of a woman determined for her husband to rise in society no matter what it takes. Her vocalism suffers somewhat however, with her undeniably powerful high notes tending to sound somewhere between shrill and squally at the top. Overall however her dramatic rendition provides a suitable reading of the character.

Jud Arthur is a commanding Banquo. Photo James Rogers.

The rest of the cast is nowhere less than excellent. Jud Arthur is a commanding Banquo and a terrifying ghost, and tenor Paul O’Neill a ringing Macduff, ably partnered by Matthew Lester as Malcolm.  The small roles of Lady Macbeth’s Lady in Waiting and the Doctor are more than adequately performed by Ashlyn Tymms and Kristin Bowtell, respectively.

Verdi is not exactly an obscure composer for the lyric stage, but Macbeth is certainly more of a rarity than the well-trod path of Trov and Trav. It is great to see this collaboration between WAO and State Opera South Australia bestow such excellent production values on something rather off the beaten (Australian) path.

Macbeth continues at His Majesty’s Theatre until October 26 with a season in South Australia in 2020.

Picture top: James Clayton as Macbeth, shadowed by witches. Photo James Rogers.

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Soprano in red velvet dress is flanked by a tenor in tuxedo
News, Opera, Reviews

Opera’s heart of gold

Review: West Australian Opera, City of Perth Opera in the Park, La Traviata⋅
Supreme Court Gardens, February 2 ⋅
Review: Rosalind Appleby ⋅

For roughly 15 000 people in Supreme Court Gardens it was a night of chandeliers, velvet gowns and love. The insect repellent and picnic faded into the background as singers and musicians from the West Australian Opera and West Australian Symphony Orchestra brought La Traviata to life at Opera in the Park.

La Traviata was Verdi’s first venture into romantic realism and the story of a high class whore with a heart of gold has been one of opera’s top ten since its 1853 premiere. It’s a bulletproof opera and a safe bet for the annual Opera in the Park especially when conducted by WAO’s outgoing artistic director Brad Cohen and sung by a cast of local stars.

With the help of six large screens and racks of speakers the onstage action was projected across the park and broadcast live to regional centres around the state. The sound production was impressively crisp and clear although the camera operators were sometimes slow to find the appropriate singer.

The use of digital set design projected on the shell of the stage was a fabulous (wind resistant!) innovation. Vibrant red curtains framed the action and the French windows and chandeliers in Act One were an elegant backdrop to the love story of Violetta and Alfredo.

A soprano in glistening white evening gown
Elena Perroni grows into a noble Violetta. Photo supplied.

Elena Perroni made her role debut as Violetta manipulating her seductive velvet soprano with impressive technique. The soprano graduated last year from the Curtis Institute of Music and displayed her versatility and stamina as she transitioned across three acts from flirtatious courtesan (‘My day dawns and dies in pleasure’) to the vulnerable and noble lady who stole the hearts of everyone in the opera (and audience).

Paul O’Neill sang Alfredo with typical ardour, wooing Violetta with gleaming long lines touched with huskiness. James Clayton brought an unexpected warmth to the role of Alfredo’s father Germont – this is the man who breaks up their relationship after all! Ashlyn Tymms was an eloquent Flora and Rebecca Castellini, Jun Zhang, Mark Alderson and Robert Hofmann sang supporting roles.

The WA Opera Chorus under guest director Francis Greep sang with vehemence and immaculate sound.  Cohen shaped a sensual journey from his masses, from voluptuous chorus and ensemble numbers to the intimacy of Violetta’s Act Three dialogue with solo violin.

The decision to dispense with a director and instead present a concert performance had mixed results. The lack of movement (why are the characters in the conversation singing from opposite ends of the stage?) and the absence of props (where was the letter they kept talking about?) made the libretto confusing. It was an effort to suspend disbelief but eventually Verdi’s music won over and the abstract presentation of this most passionate of operas found a devastating route straight to the heart.

Pictured Top: Paul O’Neill and Elena Perroni. Photo supplied.

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