Tag: Philip Lethlean

Victorian Opera Presents THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

A classic reawakens

By Rachel Holkner

The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault is one of the classic fairy tales, and one of my least favourites with its thin plot and troublesome resolution. I was not familiar at all with Respighi‘s opera before seeing this production, but I enjoyed it immensely. The story is fast-moving and compelling, and the music delightful. It was originally written in 1922 for an Italian puppetry company and it has been brought into the twenty-first century quite cleverly by Victorian Opera‘s artistic director Richard Mills and director Nancy Black.

The Sleeping Beauty.jpg

A cast of singers dressed in contemporary attire recount the story as it is acted out by talented puppeteers manipulating some remarkable puppets designed and built by Joe Blanck. They moved about an uncluttered stage with a gothic atmosphere, gorgeously lit by Philip Lethlean throughout.

Solely responsible for the movement and action, the puppeteers threw themselves, and occasionally each other, around the stage. In particular the humour and physicality of the Prince (performed by Vincent Crowley, sung by Carlos E. Bárcenas), with his Dirty-Dancing-era Patrick Swayze bearing, was spectacular. In gradually losing his puppetry aspects until nothing more than a pocket square remained, this became one of the strongest moments of the show as The Prince shed the trappings of privileged life to succeed in his arduous journey of discovery.

A large part of the production effort went into the lavish and eye-catching puppets. Although the inspiration for their design is said to have come from Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen, there are clear layers of influence from other Golden-Age fairytale illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. There is some disjoint as a consequence, with the Blue Fairy being by far the weakest design in both shape and movement, yet one of the most prominent on stage. The smaller puppets such as the cat and spindle were far better developed, their movements lending Disney-esque moments of humour to the performance.

In bringing the story into the present – it is modern times apparently when the Princess is awoken –  there was the opportunity for the creative team to bring in some pop-culture references. This had a two-fold effect for me. Firstly I was annoyed that in trying to escape some of the less pleasant aspects today’s world they suddenly appeared on stage before me, and yet it gave a telling opportunity to reflect on that aforementioned “troublesome resolution”. The expectations for and treatment of young women today are at complete odds with the 1620s culture of the source tale. You could not conclude a story nowadays with a happy-ever-after via an non-consensual kiss. (Or more, should you choose to read further back than Perrault). Without giving anything away, on reflection, the recasting of Mister Dollar was very clever indeed.

The vocal performances of the entire cast were simply outstanding. Of especial note were the work of Elizabeth Barrow as the Blue Fairy and Raphael Wong as the King. One small wardrobe choice which did constantly irritate however was The King’s relaxed interpretation of the costumer’s memo as ‘casual wear’ instead of the neat casual the rest of the cast wore. I would hardly expect a King to ever be dressed in cargo pants and a hoodie.

The live score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Phoebe Briggs, was the finishing touch on this highly enjoyable evening. It would be a wonderful introduction to the world of opera, particularly for families.

Dates: 11-18 March 2017

Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse

Tickets: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2017/opera/the-sleeping-beauty

Image by Charlie Kinross

REVIEW: Victorian Opera Presents SWEENEY TODD

Loved it!

By Jessica Cornish

In celebrating their 10th birthday, Victorian Opera have chosen to end their Stephen Sondheim trilogy that began in 2013 with the famous musical horror Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet St, directed by Stuart Maunder.

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) is a man seeking revenge on Judge Turpin (Philip Rhodes) for the wrongful imprisonment that separated him from his beautiful wife and child, Johanna (Amelia Berry). Escaping colony convict life, Todd returns an obsessed and disillusioned man, and in a cruel and unforgiving society crumbling into filth and poverty, loses his humanity and becomes a serial killer alongside his infatuated accomplice, Mrs Lovett (Antoinette Halloran). They promptly make a business of slitting the throats of barbershop customers and baking them in to pies. Meanwhile, Todd’s estranged daughter is locked away by her adopted guardian the Judge, and a lovesick boy Anthony Hope (Blake Bowden) tries to free Johanna from the lecherous man planning to marry his ward.

Victorian Opera debutant but Melbourne music-theatre favourite Teddy Rhodes has a beautiful rich voice, and his strong brooding frame demanded attention at all times; however, for the first act he seemed a little wooden and detached (even for Todd) when delivering his few lines. Halloran was a triumphant highlight of the show: her singing was always clear, well-executed and perfectly acted, providing black humour throughout the night. Her Mrs Lovett was all at once funny, revolting, and greedy yet still managed to gain the sympathy of the audience. Another standout performance was soprano Berry as Johanna, who effortlessly and accurately glided through her notoriously difficult songs and had amazing vocal clarity and control. Finally, Kanen Breen as Beadle Bamford definitely needs a mention for his hilarious performance as the snarky Judge’s companion, with a killer falsetto that reared itself spectacularly in the second act.

The ensemble are highly participatory throughout the performance, reminiscent of a Greek chorus narrating and commentating on the action unfolding. In this production, the ensemble’s well-executed diction was truly impressive because of the rapid-fire of lyrics and intense musical and narrative demands, whereupon for the most part every word was heard even amongst the complex rounds of verses. The famous Sondheim score is lyrically rich, metrically unstable, dissonant and riddled with constant tension. Under Phoebe Brigg‘s astute musical direction, even songs seemingly beautiful and sweet were laced with vengeance and murder, always leaving the audience deliciously uncomfortable and on edge.

The clarity of the audio designed by Jim Atkins was excellent: however the balance between the orchestra and the vocals was often slightly off, leaving the occasional vocal lines difficult to hear, while the infamous eerie factory whistle was literally painful to listen to and, with patrons covering their ears, really needs to be turned down. Philip Lethlean‘s atmospheric lighting was harsh, using cool washes, up-lighting, and at times, one dimensional angles to give a real horror feel, and adding to the unease of Fleet St. The sets by Rodger Kirk were simple yet adequate, and were easily and smoothly manipulated on a scene-to-scene basis (with just the one bed that seemed to be stuck on stage for a little extra time than required).

Sweeney Todd is a thrilling and enthralling musical, and with a difficult score for the regular music-theatre or operatic performer, it is not often as vocally perfected as it is here by the Victorian Opera. The opening night performance was an absolute pleasure to see and hear, and as the ‘Demon Barber’ isn’t a steady theatre standard, I warmly suggest everyone go see this musical operetta. (Just make sure that if you are purchasing or picking up ticketson the day to arrive at least half an hour in advance due to very long lines, and even more importantly make sure you are in the correct venue! Many people, including myself were ushered into the wrong theatres within the Arts Centre, so I almost saw West Side Story, another Sondheim classic, last night!)

Victorian Opera’s Sweeney Todd is playing at the Playhouse in The Arts Centre until July 25, 2015. Tickets from $50, bookings via http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/opera/sweeney-todd

Image by Jeff Busby