Macbeth behind a cauldron, with banquet in the foreground
Calendar, Food and Drink, Music, Opera, Performing arts, September 19

Macbeth’s Medieval Banquet at Brookfield Place

23 & 24 September @ Brookfield Place ·
Presented by Brookfield Properties and West Australian Opera ·

Brookfield Properties and the West Australian Opera will be teaming up once again to curate another dynamic and unique dining experience – ‘Macbeth’s Medieval Banquet at Brookfield Place’.

Taking creative inspiration from Shakespeare’s gripping classic, and the West Australian Opera’s upcoming season of Macbeth, those passionate about food, music, wine, art and entertainment are invited to enjoy a progressive culinary experience through the award winning-venues of Brookfield Place.

More info

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Music, News, Performing arts, Theatre

Sweeney sets the blood racing

Review: WA Opera, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ·
By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 13 July ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

It is the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Sweeney Todd,  prompting revivals of the musical thriller around the world. Composer Stephen Sondheim also collaborated with Hugh Wheeler on the musical’s lyrics and scenario to produce a truly unified piece.

Based on Christopher Bond’s ghoulish 1973 play and a 19th century British melodrama, Sondheim’s version follows Todd’s quest for vengeance upon his return to London from an Australian penal colony. Todd is seeking the corrupt Judge Turpin, who had Todd transported, raped his wife and stole his daughter Johanna as a “ward” to be groomed to fulfill Turpin’s desires in marriage.

Todd teams up with failed pie-maker Mrs Lovett to kill unsuspecting patrons to his barbershop, whilst awaiting Turpin. The bodies provide the irresistible ingredient for Lovett’s now booming trade.

Director Hal Prince’s 1979 Broadway production was both epic and gothic, featuring a highly flexible stage with dynamic set elements. Few comparable venues exist in Australia, and director Theresa Borg’s current Sydney production is hampered by the poorly designed if spacious Darling Harbour Theatre.

The West Australian Opera has the opposite challenge with His Majesty’s Theatre, which dates back to the halcyon days of melodrama. Sound designer Jim Atkins works the acoustics well, and director Stuart Maunder and designer Roger Kirk retain almost all of the elements from Prince’s 1979 production but have responded to the narrow stage by compacting them. They have divided the original expanse of gantries into distinct banks left and right so that the effect is more of a columnar, crisscrossed set of points, than of Prince’s wide swirling maelstrom.

The performers, led by Ben Mingay as Todd and Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett, are fantastic, and so is the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under the music direction of Brett Weymark. But while the spatial compromises largely work, there are points where the performances seem cramped.

Todd’s trunk, in which he hides the bodies, all but destroys the sightlines in his barbershop, where it should act as a significant but peripheral object. The chute connected to Todd’s mechanical chair for disposing of bodies is rather clunky, lacking the smooth efficiency which produces so much irony as he sings of his love for Johanna. The final scene where the waif Tobias (Joshua Reckless) goes mad at the sight of the bloodshed, and then surprises both the audience and Todd with use of the cut-throat razor, is anticlimactic given that Tobias must first sidle along a narrow band at the back of the set.

Mingay triumphs as Todd. While not a dynamically nuanced or varied delivery, his almost continuous basso profundo, launched feet apart and shoulders squared, makes for a wonderfully demonic barber. As an avenging angel come to punish the rich, the powerful and the whole of venal humanity, he recalls Rod Steiger’s Judd in the film Oklahoma! and it comes as no surprise that this is a role Mingay has played on stage.

James Clayton is a rather perverse Turpin, whipping himself like a penitent as he rationalises his wicked lust for Johanna. Fiona Campbell portrays the mad beggar who takes a strong interest in Todd’s shop, nailing the ranting song “City on Fire”. Emma Pettemerides as Johanna and Nathan Stark as her beau Anthony are rather more randy than in the original, making the repeated, interrupted refrain of “Kiss Me” more comedic than touching.

For all of Mingay’s brooding presence, the production is all but stolen by Halloran as Lovett. The role was famously written for Angela Lansbury, who produced a wonderfully blousy, pragmatic character whose true wish was a domestic, well-to-do life. Halloran by contrast is explicitly sexual and is clearly after Todd for his erotic allure rather than just his ability to secure her prosperity. She is constantly amused, flirtatious and suggestive: I lost count of how many times she rubbed her behind against Todd. Halloran  provides a live wire of electricity and sass running throughout this otherwise dark and unredeemed narrative.

Although WA Opera’s production does not establish any significant new precedents, it is a triumph of effective and affecting staging.

Sweeney Todd continues on July 16, 18 and 20. 

Picture above: Ben Mingay as Sweeney Todd and Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett. Photo by James Rogers.

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Meal on table surrounded by candles and greenery
April 19, Calendar, Food and Drink, Music, Opera, Performing arts

Music & Feast: The Whole Beast – A Progressive Culinary Experience

17 April @ Brookfield Place ·
Presented by West Australian Opera ·

“If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing”
~ Fergus Henderson, BME (St John, London)

Deliciously dark and dramatic, indulge your senses as Brookfield Place partners with West Australian Opera to bring you a truly unique progressive culinary experience – The Whole Beast at Brookfield Place.

Taking creative inspiration from Fergus Henderson’s pivotal nose-to-tail tome, The Whole Beast, and the West Australian Opera’s 2019 season of Sweeney Todd, you’re invited to enjoy a progressiveculinary experience through the award winning-venues of Brookfield Place, where each course is expertly accompanied with matching wines and exclusive pre-season performances from West Australian Opera.

For those passionate about nose-to-tail dining, unexpected ingredients and opera, the event will behosted by acclaimed food writer and critic, Max Brearley who will guide guests across five venues at Brookfield Place and through the progressive four course menu where not everything will be – or taste – as it seems.

Offering a truly sensory experience that celebrates food, music, wine and art, the evening includes four courses, matching wines, a cocktail on arrival and the exclusive operatic performances.

Website for more info

Pictured: The Whole Beast Dinner

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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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The Magic Flute
Calendar, Music, Opera, Performing arts, Perth Festival

Music: Mozart’s The Magic Flute

20 – 23 February @ His Majesty’s Theatre ·
Presented by Komische Oper Berlin, Barry Kosky, 1927 ·

Presented in association with West Australian Opera and West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Mozart’s master comedy opera is richly reimagined in a boundary-busting production created by internationally-renowned opera director Barrie Kosky and British theatre group 1927.

Blending animated film and live action in a gloriously ingenious kaleidoscope of 1920s silent movies, Weimar cabaret, dark humour and German expressionism, this visual fantasia is made for film buffs and art lovers, as well as fans of fine opera.

Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin comes to Australia for the first time, accompanied here by West Australian Symphony Orchestra and 1927’s magical projected animations. Immense three-storey spiders, flappers and demons, butterflies and wolves – this wildly inventive The Magic Flute is like no other.

With its captivating and innovative staging, where film animation interacts with live singers, this production has thrilled audiences around the world. Now Australian audiences have the chance to see this most popular of operas performed as never before.

Presented by arrangement with Arts Projects Australia.

More info:

Pictured: The Magic Flute, credit: Iko Freese

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By Other Eyes
Calendar, Choral, Music, November 18, Performing arts

Music: By Other Eyes: Armistice Choral Project

11 November @ Field of Light: Avenue of Honour ·
Presented by Vancouver Arts Centre in conjunction with Matt Ward and the Vocal Performance Initiative supported by West Australian Opera ·

Join the cast of professional and community performers from across the Great Southern as they perform a new work of choral-theatre broadcast live from inside the Field of Light: Avenue of Honour to commemorate the Centenary of Armistice.

Set against the backdrop of the First World War, this new work offers a contemporary perspective on what it means to truly remember. Created in partnership with local Noongar elders and the people of the Great Southern, By Other Eyes provides a visceral insight into our human experience in 2018.

Featuring the recorded voices of over 1000 children from across the Great Southern, a live ensemble, singers from the West Australian Opera, local soloists and a mass choir, By Other Eyes will be staged in the immersive surrounds of Bruce Munro’s Field of Light: Avenue of Honour installation on Mt Clarence, Albany.

The 7pm performance will be broadcast live on local radio and streamed online. For more information on accessing the stream please see the website.

By Other Eyes is produced by the City of Albany’s Vancouver Arts Centre in conjunction with Matt Reuben James Ward and the Vocal Performance Initiative, supported by West Australian Opera.

This project has been made possible with generous support from Lotterywest, Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries (Culture and Arts), and Albany Community Radio.

More info:

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Don Giovanni kneels opposite Zerlina
Classical music, Music, News, Opera, Performing arts, Reviews

A magnificent night at the opera

Review: West Australian Opera, Don Giovanni ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 20 October ·
Review by Leon Levy ·

The conductor Hans Richter, when asked to nominate the greatest composer, replied “Beethoven, undoubtedly”. Taken aback, the questioner retorted “But I thought you might have considered Mozart”. “Oh,” said Richter, “I didn’t understand that you were bringing Mozart into the argument; I thought you were referring to the rest”.

Many decades on, with Verdi and Wagner recognised for their genius, is it possible that Mozart’s operatic star is now outshone? If that is a plausible notion, West Australian Opera’s remount of the 1991 Opera Australia production by the late Gӧran Jӓrvefelt and Carl Friedrich Oberle deals decisively with the suggestion.

But now a question surely arises in relation to the character of Don Giovanni himself. Themes of cruelty and injustice abound throughout drama, and the character of the philanderer surely falls within this broad spectrum, often eliciting an amused acceptance. Not only the degrading role that the Don assigns to women and which forms an unwavering thread through the work, but the casual disregard of the freshly-murdered Commendatore and the freedom with which, as of right, he sidelines the newly married Masetto in order to seduce Zerlina, all of these suggest a work that would not be acceptable to a modern audience… were it not for the fact that the moral bankruptcy of the man is so clearly revealed, to say nothing of the end that he meets.

On opening night everything that Mozart set to music in this work unfolded in a way that held the audience in its grip through three hours. From the first notes of the overture one was aware that we were in the safest of hands: Brad Cohen, conducting the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with dash and sensitivity as required, brought distinction to the accompaniment.

Don Giovanni overlooks a crouched Zerlina
In the role of Don Giovanni, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’s stature and stamina helps to delineate his character. Centre front is Rebecca Castellini as Zerlina.

In the title role, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’s reputation precedes him and his stature and stamina – both vocally and physically — help to delineate his character, while all whose paths cross with his fully inhabit their roles. First on stage, James Clayton as Leporello, the Don’s much-abused manservant, immediately establishes his character, and goes on to sing throughout the evening with a vocal gleam that one would have been excited to encounter in – shall we say – Salzburg! And as each cast member appears, one notes with pleasure that we have before us a gathering performance of uniform excellence, each member cutting a plausible figure in his or her role; and, thereafter, highlights abound.

Emma Pearson, as the abandoned but still infatuated Donna Elvira, captures her character’s conflicted emotions, reaching a peak of torment in Mi tradi. So too does Anita Watson as Donna Anna, whose shock and devastation at the murder of her father have to be balanced with the needs of her fiancée Don Ottavio; in her heartfelt Non mi dir, her torment is conveyed in full.

A woman in a white dress and red cape.
Emma Pearson captures Donna Elvira’s conflicted emotions.

Meanwhile the hapless Don Ottavio, who seems destined to have to wait a further year before reaching the marital bed, must  be content with the relatively colourless persona that librettist Da Ponte has assigned to him. Consolation for this is provided by his aria Il mio Tesoro, mellifluously sung by Jonathan Abernethy.

As the newly married rustics Masetto and Zerlina, Wade Kernot and Rebecca Castellini convey subtleties of characterisation, she almost vulnerable to the Don’s charisma, he deeply wounded by his suspicions and by the assertion of the latter’s superiority by virtue of class. Jud Arthur, as creepy an animated statue of the dead Commendatore as you could wish to encounter, makes his mark in the high drama of the conclusion (which left the audience gasping).

A word must be said, too, for the fine ensemble work throughout: the trio Protegga il giusto cielo and the sextet Sola, sola in buio loco are examples of many compelling moments.

In sum, a magnificent night at the opera, a triumph for all involved, and a memorable conclusion to the 2018 season. The assembled cast, conductor, Roger Press (rehearsal director), Oberle (set and costume designer) in person, Nigel Levings (lighting) and Andy Fraser (fight director) received a warm and richly deserved ovation… as surely did Mozart and Da Ponte.

Don Giovanni closes Saturday 27 October.

Pictured top: Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Don Giovanni and Rebecca Castellini as Zerlina.

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A woman, a man and a bird surrounded by flowers.
Circus, Music, Musical theatre, News, Opera, Performing arts, Theatre

First peek at 2019 Perth Festival

Perth Festival has given us a tantalising glimpse of its 2019 programme, revealing four of the works on the line-up.

Returning to open the Festival will be Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, a nocturnal wonderland that will, once again, light up Kings Park over four nights. This free, outdoor event is a celebration of Noongar culture and the beauty and biodiversity of the South West of WA, that sees audiences take a kaleidoscopic walk through projections, animation, sound and lighting effect along Fraser Avenue and deep into Kings Park.’

Balls of light in a park at night
‘Boorna Waanginy’. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

That weekend will also see two international shows, both Australian exclusives, open in Perth. The first, Lang Toi, by Nouveau Cirque de Vietnam, is a daring display of acrobatics, physical theatre, live traditional music and playful bamboo constructions, that transports the audience into the heart of a Vietnamese village.

an acrobat standing on one hand
A scene from ‘Lang Toi’. Photo: Nguyen Duc Minh.

The second work, The Great Tamer, sees Greece’s Dimitris Papaioannou explore the mysteries of life, death and the beauty of humanity with enigmatic, dreamlike scenes and visual riddles. Using ten performers and a shape-shifting floor that undulates to Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube”, Papaioannou’s magical stagecraft brings to life a series of inventive live paintings.

Last – for now – but not least, flying elephants, gaudy 1920s flappers, comic-book villains, gigantic spiders, butterflies and wolves run rampant as performers interact with animated characters in Barrie Kosky’s exhilarating production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented by Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin, British theatre group 1927 in association with West Australian Opera and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

The full 2019 Perth Festival program will be announced 1 November 2018.

Pictured top is a scene from Komische Oper Berlin’s “The Magic Flute”.

A man throwing seeds over his head
A scene from ‘The Great Tamer’. Photo: Julian Mommert.
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Milijana Nikolic as Carmen
Music, News, Opera, Performing arts, Reviews

Hume’s Carmen stands the test of time

Review: West Australian Opera, Carmen ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 21 July ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Back in 1992, when Lindy Hume’s Carmen made its debut, it was labelled “the feminist Carmen”. Picked up by Opera Australia, this Carmen has been seen around Australia, and was last brought to the stage by West Australian Opera in 2010. Despite its many outings, it was my first time seeing this production and I was curious to discover how a twenty-something year old “feminist opera” would live up to the hype.

What struck me immediately about this Carmen (directed by Hume herself) was how fresh it feels, in terms of design. The shabby, stuccoed walls of Dan Potra’s set cleverly shift and fold – sometimes in view of the audience – to transform the space as required. The angled flats not only create an appropriately claustrophic backdrop but also ensure that the notoriously variable sight lines at His Majesty’s Theatre are much improved.

And, while the production may not be new, its feminist message still rings true, perhaps even more so, in this post #MeToo era. Act I’s soldiers are menacing rather than teasing as they gather around the timid Micaëla (Emma Pearson). When the women appear from the cigarette factory, they are not so much flirtatious and provocative as tired and worn out. Though beautiful in their aprons and long skirts (designed by Vicki Feitscher), the muted colour palette reflects their fatigue, and the gap between the men’s interpretation of their appearance and the reality is almost laughable.

Emma Pearson as Michaela and Paul O'Neill as Don Jose
Paul O’Neill as Don José, the naïve, lovestruck young man who loses his mind to love, with Emma Pearson as the vulnerable but gutsy Micaëla. Photo: James Rogers.

Carmen, by contrast, is undeniably sexy, but the way she is positioned on stage plays with conventional portrayals of this role. Potra’s utilitarian metal staircases enable a vertical use of space, so that Carmen makes her entrance, and sings most of her famous Habanera, poised above the heads of the gently swaying soldiers. As Carmen, Serbian mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic delivered the aria with an almost weary insouciance, the richness and warmth of her vocals trickling down the steps to tantalise the listening men and women alike. Nikolic is perfectly cast in this production, convincing as both the sensual but selfish woman of the first two acts and the tragic heroine of the latter two.

As Don José – the naïve, lovestruck young man who loses his mind to love – Paul O’Neill’s transformation was even more pronounced and skilfully executed. In Act II’s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” (the Flower Song), his glorious and dramatic tenor was infused with passion; in his final, crazed entreaties to Carmen in Act IV, that passion had given way to a madness that was as pitiful as Carmen’s death. The parallels that Hume has drawn between this situation and contemporary domestic violence against women were painfully apparent.

James Clayton as Escamillo
Superstar aplomb: James Clayton as Escamillo. Photo: James Rogers.

Of course, the appearance of José’s romantic rival, the toreador Escamillo, is Act II’s mass-appeal moment, which must be somewhat daunting for the actor playing the role. Amidst the shadows of the dimly lit tavern, however, James Clayton managed the challenge with superstar aplomb. Clad in black great coat and black leather gloves, he cut an imposing figure as Escamillo, delivering his aria with a punch and clarity that delighted the opening night audience. A moment in which he is abruptly plunged into near-darkness, lit only from overhead, is dramatically cinematic; one of many pleasing touches from lighting designer Stephen Wickham.

Less well-known, but equally impressive was the beautifully blended quintet “Nous avons en tête une affaire!”, sung by Rebecca Castellani (Frasquita), Fleuranne Brockway (Mercédès), Mark Alderson (Dancaire), Matt Reuben James Ward (Remendado) and Nikolic. Castellani and Brockway shone again in Act III, with their delightful rendition of the comical “Mêlons! Coupons!”. Wrapping and weaving around one another, Castellani’s voice had an airy, bird-like quality that beautifully contrasted Brockway’s deeper, more mellow tones.

Emma Pearson as Michaela
At once vulnerable and powerful: Emma Pearson as Micaëla. Photo: James Rogers.

It was Emma Pearson’s “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”, however, that evoked the strongest audience response, and with excellent reason. As the anxious yet brave Micaëla, venturing into the mountains to notify José that his mother’s death is imminent, Pearson was at once vulnerable and powerful. Vocally, she was magnificent, masterfully controlling the dynamic and emotional contrasts that this poignant aria requires. The applause was rapturous for this much-loved local soprano.

Mention must be made, too, of the impeccably rehearsed Carmen Children’s Chorus, who not only sang sweetly and tunefully but also performed with commendable gusto.

Last but not least, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Antony Walker, provided a polished and evocative accompaniment. In particular, the Entr’acte to Act III had a delicious bittersweet quality.

There are few criticisms to be made of this production, and these are minor. The lack of recognisable flamenco style in the dancing is one. While this production doesn’t credit a choreographer or use trained dancers, it would not take a lot of research to add some authenticity in this regard. And the use of fake blood to dramatise Carmen’s murder produced some nervous giggles from the audience and added an almost cartoon-like quality to what is, otherwise, a moving and tragic finale.

Nonetheless, it is an absolute credit to Hume that a production that made its premiere the year I graduated from high school has stood the test of time so unequivocally. For those that have tickets to this sold-out season, you are in for a treat.

Carmen plays His Majesty’s Theatre until 28 July.

Pictured top is Milijana Nikolic (seated), tantalising all with the famous Habanera aria. Photo: James Rogers.

Paull-Anthony Keightley as Zuniga
Paull-Anthony Keightley as Zuniga, with the ‘Carmen’ Children’s Chorus who performed with commendable gusto. Photo: James Rogers.
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Cunning Little Vixen
Classical music, Music, News, Reviews

A paradise we may never want to leave

Review: West Australian Opera, The Cunning Little Vixen ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 21 April ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

What are some of the tropes and images that come to mind when you think of opera? Perhaps you imagine a portly woman with Viking horns, spear outstretched, blasting over a one-hundred-piece orchestra. Perhaps you imagine the great Luciano Pavarotti, portly (why are they always portly?) and robed, moving audiences to tears with his “Nessun Dorma”. Perhaps you imagine an audience of distinguished ladies in furs and gentlemen in tuxedos peering through binoculars.

You probably don’t imagine a scene where one woman screeches to another – multiple times, in English – “you little bitch!” Nor would you imagine a tender love scene between two foxes (played by two women, Emma Pearson and Rachelle Durkin) ending in a bold, protracted kiss. What about a brood of laying hens who consider staging a feminist revolt against their patriarch: a cocksure rooster-slash-Elvis-impersonator? These were some of many delightful surprises in Saturday night’s performance of The Cunning Little Vixen, a daring original production by Victorian Opera, directed by Stuart Maunder and presented by West Australian Opera at His Majesty’s Theatre.

Rebecca Castellini as Cockerel with then Hens v2
The colourful, enchanting world of animals (in contrast to the bleak, mundane world of humans) feels like a paradise we may never want to leave. Pictured: Rebecca Castellini as Cockerel with Hens. Photo: James Rogers.

Czech composer Leoš Janáček wrote the light-hearted, family-friendly opera in the later years of his life, between 1921-1923. His distinctively unique and modern style was shaped by Czech and Slavic folklore and by his desire to synthesise a new musical language without crossing over into atonality. His life had been full of hard work, artistic struggle, and romantic turbulence, but The Cunning Little Vixen was a return to the simple, the everyday. An unexpected, whimsical story about a hunter and a young fox became Janáček’s masterpiece – reflecting on love, nature, beauty, morality and domestic life. Janáček held the work so dear to his heart that he had the opera’s final scene performed at his funeral; here, the old Forester (James Clayton) strolls through the woods, reminiscing about his younger years, when he encounters a young frog who reminds him of the cyclical nature of life and death. He then appears blissful in the acceptance of all that has passed, including the death of his beloved pet fox, Sharp-Ears (Emma Pearson).

The performances from the cast were enthralling and convincing, from the leads to the choruses of insects, birds, forest critters, and villagers. I often forgot the characters were even singing at all, so natural were their vocalisations and gestures (an impressive feat considering some of the very angular, difficult melodies). Janáček based his character’s lines on the rhythms and melodic contours of the vernacular Moravian dialect of the Czech language, which are quite different to those of the English language, and markedly different to the more dramatic, lyrical styles of operatic singing to which we’ve been accustomed in the West.

The Cunning Little Vixen
The performances from the cast were enthralling and convincing, from the leads to the choruses of insects, birds, forest critters, and villagers. Pictured: Paull Anthony Keightley as the Badger. Photo: James Rogers.

Under the baton of Johannes Fritzsch, the orchestra (West Australian Symphony Orchestra) supported the singers’ lines with direct musical imitation and swift call-and-response. They reinforced the somewhat unconventional modalities, the occasional harmonic dissonance, and the idiosyncratic speech rhythms – making the music easier to digest at times. But most of the score is pleasant, subtle and dreamy. The orchestra illustrates the forest setting with bucolic woodwinds, sparse, sparkling strings and declamatory hunting horn calls. The musical style sits somewhere between the impressionistic Debussy and the insistently modern Bartók.

Despite its quirks, and a rather slow-moving, non-linear plot, The Cunning Little Vixen is a joy to watch. It’s uncanny how Janáček’s folk-laden melodies evoke distant childhood memories, even for those who grew up on the other side of the world. Stuart Maunder’s vibrant, forward-thinking production – with its minimal staging, tongue-in-cheek costumes, and astoundingly detailed approach to characterisation – feels positively alive. The colourful, enchanting world of animals (in contrast to the bleak, mundane world of humans) feels like a paradise we may never want to leave. But, like an old fairy tale, there are lessons to be learned and wisdom to be gained; after all, meaning and morality are the very things that make us human.

The Cunning Little Vixen plays His Majesty’s Theatre April 24, 26 and 28.

Top: A tender love scene between two foxes: Rachelle Durkin as the Fox and Emma Pearson as the Vixen. Photo: James Rogers.

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