All Hail Hexagon

Macbeth (Third World Bunfight)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 15 – 19

All hail Macbeth, King hereafter, but not of Scotland, as the General becomes a Congolese warlord in the story’s radical operatic retelling by provocative South African theatre-maker Brett Bailey. Set in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, the appropriation of Verdi’s opera “Macbeth” features as part of Brisbane Festival’s Congo Connections focus, unashamedly shining a light on the under-reported mineral resources war raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has killed millions in the past 20 years. And unfortunately, transporting the story originally set in 11th Century Scotland, to the modern troubled country is a perfect fit, given its themes of greed and tyranny.

The recreation of the story begins and ends with a group of Congolese refuges describing the horrors of what has happened to their country. This comes after they have stumbled upon a trunk filled with 1935 tour artefacts of sheet music, costumes and gramophone recordings of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, which become the beginnings of a dramatic retelling of Shakespeare’s tale, with the Macbeths as warlords and the three witches as double-crossing, corrupt businessmen of the Hexagon Corporation, who represent one of the primary causes of the continuing crisis in the Congo where the extreme mineral wealth of the region is battled over by militia who tax citizens and force them to work in the mines at gunpoint, enacting massacres and rapes to assert power. Given their ability to manufacture more than predict the future, the greedy group represents the supernatural element of the original text (with hex representing the Dutch word for witch).

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Key lines of the original text are still present, however, they are mixed with profanities of exclamation to sight to Banquo’s ghost. And when, for example, the nature of Macbeth’s WTF text to his wife after his initial encounter with the trio of prophets is shared as projection, it provides some welcome humour within the dark tale. Along with the sometimes conversational tones and vocabulary of corporate businessmen, it also serves to give the work an accessibility beyond traditional opera. The show’s projections make for quite the vibrant visual feast of often hyper-real African print patterns and messages to complement on-stage action, but also serve as solution to the dead Banquo dilemma that will always plague productions.

Adapted by Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol (who also collaborated on Congolese baroque music theatre work “Coup Fatal”) this is a stripped-back version of Verdi’s opera, first staged in 1847, running at a more affable 100 minutes, reorchestrated from 65 musicians and 45 singers to no more than a dozen of each and featuring focus mainly on the Macbeths. Opera is, of course, primarily about music and although fast-paced in its modernity, this is also a sometimes-serene chamber piece that maintains the beauty of the Verdi score. The performance of the onstage trans-Balkan No Borders Orchestra, is one of stirring restraint, often ebbing and flowing in contrast to its tragic tale of blood-lust fantasy, particularly as evident through its energetic violins.

Soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza, who plays Lady Macbeth fills the role with many emotions, often simultaneously, creating an engaging performance to complement her extraordinary voice.  As she transforms from laundrette washer-woman into materialistic first-lady, complete with haute couture costuming, she also provides some light-hearted moments as the director teases out every nuance of her problematic relationship with the General.

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Lyric baritone Owen Metsileng, who plays Commander Macbeth, the despotic, bloodthirsty militia man (complete with clenched fist headwear) maintains the menace of the physically-strong but mentally-weak character throughout, bringing a pivotal naïve villainy to every aspect of his performance, particularly as he sits imposingly centre-stage almost looking over his eyeballs with an Idi-Armin-like intimidation, even though he is in essence a mere puppet of the Hexagon Corporation’s politics. Together the power couple share the limelight with a range of fine singers in a highly stylised performance in which everyone sings in Italian (with subtitles in English).

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Positioning the classic work against the shattered country context of post-colonial Africa serves as only one ingredient in this “Macbeth” mix. What makes it the theatrical triumph that has garnered its five star reviews in tour across the globe is the completeness of its aesthetic experience, which is rich in colour and emotion, and complete with even a glittering mirror ball.

Visceral Verdi

Rigoletto (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

March 15 – 29

There is something about opera that makes it a complete theatrical experience. Its stories are big, its staging is large and everything simultaneously bombards the audience. The grand orchestra, the powerful voices, and the visual spectacle of the extravagant sets and opulent costumes all combine to create an encounter beyond theatrical compare.

Verdi’s popular opera, “Rigoletto” is the perfect vehicle for a visceral experience. In its misogynistic power-play themes, it resonates beyond its 1851 origin, particularly when the debauched action is transferred to the excessive experience of scandalous Italian politician, entrepreneur, media tycoon and criminal defendant Silvio Berlusconi.

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The extravagance of this contemporary setting is immediate. The opera opens with the powerful Duke of Mantua holding court, surrounded by police, politicians and skimpily-dressed prostitutes. And from the opulence of this marbled majesty, the show continues with Richard Roberts’ impressive cinematic staging contributing significantly to this credible context. Scenery is on a revolving platform that allows the audience to simultaneously experience both interior and exterior scenes. From the banality of a suburban kitchen, to the seediness of an underworld bar, sets are enhanced by an attention to detail that illuminates rather than distracts from the spectacle, and allows full appreciation of the Lyric Theatre stage’s depth and possibilities. The use of video screens adds interest and atmospheric lighting contributes to the distinctness of the story’s worlds.

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But this is opera, which means it is about the music more than the vision. And, in the case of “Rigoletto”, the music is immediately engaging and doesn’t let you go until the very end. This is an opera packed full of melody, including the signature ‘La donna e’ Mobile’. Opera Queensland Chorus and Queensland Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Johannes Fritzsch) bring Verdi’s exciting score and famous chorus to vivid life with a wonderful string section adding both pep to party scenes and drama to Act Two’s tragic outcome.

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“Rigoletto” also features some of outstanding vocal performances. Rosario La Spina plays the part of roguish rascal The Duke of Mantua with relish. Michael Lewis, in the title role, captures the pathos of court jester Rigoletto, yet balances this beautifully in some tender duets with Elena Xanthoudakis as his daughter Gilda. Gleefully giddy as a girl in love, Xanthoudakis steals the show, with her Act One solo standing as a highlight.  Of note, too is the richly sinister performance of Jud Arthur (in his Opera Queensland debut) as assassin Sparafucile, Indeed, all the singers complement their vocal excellence with credible dramatic performances, contributing to the audience curtain cries of “brava”.

It is rituals such as this that endear the opera as an experience. And for all of its red light raciness, Opera Queensland’s take on the enduring classic is both captivating in its escapism and thrilling in its theatricality. As it should be, the subject is immense; Verdi’s work is both an observation of flawed humanity and a comment on the consequences of corrupt power and injustice. Opera Queensland is to be commended for its magnificent in ensuring the enduring appeal of this masterpiece.

What you know, you know

Otello (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

October 24 – November 2

Celebrating the bicentenary of Guiesspi Verdi’s birth, Chief Conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Johannes Fritzsch, presents his Opera Queensland theatre debut in the form of a brave new production of “Otello” based on one of Shakespeare’s most intense tragedies.

And bold it is, in terms of its modern-day context and setting, on an aircraft carrier, amidst projected images of warfare, depicting scenes from recent military conflicts. This adds interest, almost to the point of distraction; the sleek lines and harsh lighting of what is essentially a generic military setting may be authentic, but they juxtapose the grittiness of its psychological story.

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Verdi is a towering figure in the operatic world. Of his three operatic versions of Shakespeare’s plays, it is often claimed that it is “Otello” that possesses the greatest potential to eclipse its original, such is its power. Indeed, any presentation of this seminal work is therefore going to be challenging, especially as the three leading roles of Othello, Iago and Desdemona are among opera’s most demanding, both vocally and dramatically.

Unfortunately, dramatically, Frank Porretta’s Moor is definitely less. The role of Otello is emotionally intense, as it has to include the ability to portray the Cypriot’s decline from proud, noble military hero to insecure, jealous obsessive at the hands of Iago’s motiveless malignancy. And Porretta’s lack of dramatic depth detracts significantly from the storytelling. As the demure Desdemona, Otello’s unjustly accused wife, Cherly Barker provides a vocal highlight; although a softer, more girlish tone would better convey the character’s essential ethereality and fragility after Otello’s public humiliation of her. However, Douglas McNicol is a fine Iago, compelling in his villainous characterisation.

The Opera Queensland Chorus dominates, as was the case with 2012’s “Macbeth In Concert”, reveling in the magnificence of the work’s monumental choruses. The real highlight, however, is Verdi’s score, beautifully interpreted by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, especially in the strings and brass sections.

Though the magic is lacking from the “Otello” web, much promise awaits in Opera Queensland’s 2014 season, particularly “La Boheme” and “The Perfect American”.