Opera: Carmen at the Isaac Theatre Royal

Opening night at the beautifully restored Isaac Theatre Royal. The talk of the excited crowd dies down to murmurs as the lights dim. Light glitters from gilded panels. The open stage begins to fill with the cast, who stare heroically at the audience, then walk off to leave the lead character exposed.

Carmen, by Georges Bizet, is an Opera in four acts. It’s a passionate story, centred around Gypsy Siren come Revolutionary, Carmen. Her wily seduction of the Soldier Don Jose and the love triangle created when she spurns him for the compelling Toreador, Escamillo, raises passions that run out of control.

Carmen with chorus members
Carmen with chorus members. Image credit: Marty Melville

Directed by Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Lindy Hume, (Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and La cenerentola), the themes of immorality and the murder of the main character broke new ground in theatre, making the Opera controversial after its release in 1875.

The cast of Carmen are incredible. Relaxed and natural in their roles, they deliver a heartfelt and convincing performance. Don Jose (Tom Randle) has a powerful voice with which to express his pain (like a knife in the heart). His duets with Michaela (Emma Pearson) are exquisite.

Micaela (Emma Pearson)’s pleas with Don Jose to save his life from ruin are delivered with such feeling that I was moved by her performance. Her voice brought the role to life with powerful strength.

Escamillo (James Clayton) has a beautiful voice. It flows naturally, like honey. I would have heard him more (he performs in Handel’s Messiah later in the year).

And Carmen (Nina Surguladze). Wow. She gave an incredible performance. Her voice filled the theatre, as did her personality. Nina has performed on the most famous stages in the world. Her Carmen was cheeky, strong heroic; her movements around the stage as graceful as her control over her voice, teasing us with soft notes, and inflaming us with her passionate mezzo soprano.

The supporting cast must not be forgotten. All great actors, their wonderful voices swelled the theatre with rousing performances of Amour and Toreador. Special mention to Kiwis Amelia Perry (Frasquita) and Kristin Darragh (Mercedes), Carmen’s companions. I loved their voices, and they brought more character to the stage.

Carmen
Clever staging at the Isaac Theatre Royal

Production Designer Dan Potra’s staging is clever and innovative. Moving panels create or take away space, ultimately leaving the lead characters, Carmen and Don Jose trapped.

The chorus and Escamillo take performances beyond the stage, singing shadowed behind the stage wall. Lights appear in a strangely jagged wall to create a mountain hillside, clever lighting (Matthew Marshall) creates swirling clouds from dry ice.

Lastly a hat’s off to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Francesco Pasqualletti and Oliver von Dohnanyi. and It was thrilling to hear Toreador played live. Great job.

Favourite scenes? The whole cast singing ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle‘ in Act I. The dancing scene in Act II:  Carmen is completely in control; the women creating a whirlwind around the circle of sheepish, lustful men.

Gypsies
Gypsies. Image credit: Marty Melville.

And the Death Scene. Best Death Ever! The crowd gasped as Don Jose fired his gun (filled with very loud blanks), then gasped again as Carmen slid down the wall, leaving a trail of blood. Especially entertaining as we all knew it was coming.

Footnote: My library colleague Rose O’Neill asked one of the Isaac’s friendly staff about The Ghost. It was thought that he had gone after the Quakes. Then after restoration he was seen behind the stage…

Ceiling dome, Isaac Theatre Royal.

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The Mikado: A very modern comedy

People people-watching in bustling New Regent Street, folks out and about in their finery, and a sea of black and white as those carrying black instrument cases make their way towards an unassuming looking back entrance off Gloucester Street – New Zealand Opera is back at the Isaac Theatre Royal, and this time it’s for their 2017 production – Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Set in Japan, and first performed over 120 years ago in a theatre in London, it might be difficult to see how this comic opera could appeal to the sense of humour of people here in 2017 Christchurch. Sitting in the audience last night, and hearing all the laughter around me throughout the show, I can tell you that this production has updated itself fantastically. Harajuku girls, the use of cellphones as a plot device, and references to Donald Trump and theatre etiquette mean you’ll forget that this opera has been around for long enough to become a theatre classic, and will enjoy it even if you aren’t a regular opera-goer.

Jonathan Abernethy as Nanki-Poo bribes Poo-Bah as played by Andrew Collis.
Jonathan Abernethy as Nanki-Poo bribes Poo-Bah as played by Andrew Collis. Image credit: David Rowland

The Mikado‘s story follows Nanki-Poo, the son of the Japanese Mikado (or Emperor), in his journey to Titipu in search of his sweetheart, Yum-Yum. Unfortunately for him, Yum-Yum is now engaged to her guardian Ko-Ko, and the woman Nanki-Poo was intended to marry is not overly happy at being left behind so unceremoniously. … Also, Ko-Ko isn’t that keen to have a rival love interest, either. What follows is an hilarious story of love, loyalty and power, and a reminder that sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t work out quite the way you’d expect.

This show was a delight to watch, and by the end of it my cheeks hurt from all the grinning and laughing. While I thought that all the cast members did a great job portraying their characters, I particularly enjoyed Brendan Coll’s version of the character Ko-Ko. With his wide range of facial expressions and various voices, I don’t think I have ever spent so much time laughing at someone with the job title ‘Lord High Executioner’!

Helen Medlyn as Katisha and Byron Coll as Ko-Ko.
Helen Medlyn as Katisha and Byron Coll as Ko-Ko. Image credit: David Rowland

I also thoroughly enjoyed watching Andrew Collis as Pooh-Bah – he’s the epitome of pomposity in this show, but he’s spoken to Moata and it looks like in reality he’s a really nice guy.

Along with the cast, members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the creative team involved with The Mikado have created a production that has a combination of visual, verbal and physical comedy, and is accompanied by an instrumental arrangement that adds to the overall enjoyment of the show. I highly recommend going to see it – the Isaac Theatre Royal is a beautiful venue, and this is an opera that will appeal to more people than just the usual opera crowd. With sensuous left shoulder blades, aunties with moustaches, and wandering 21st century minstrels peddling their CDs on Marine Parade, why not make The Mikado your introduction (or re-introduction) to Gilbert and Sullivan?

You only have until Saturday March 11th to head along and see this great show, so grab your tickets and get ready for a fun night out.

Cover of The Mikado sound recordingTo prepare for the show, or to relive the experience afterwards, jump into our collection and check out what Mikado-related material we have in a range of formats.

La Traviata

Last night I had my first ever opera experience. Although I generally enjoy live music and performance I wasn’t 100% if I would like opera, even with the excellent introduction to the operatic world I got from a bonafide opera singer. I mean, all that warbling and melodrama. Maybe it would be a bit OTT for me?

Violetta and Alfredo
Violetta and Alfredo, Photo by Neil MacKenzie.

But then I remembered that I love stuff that’s OTT. And opera, or at least this one, has it all. Gorgeous ladies in gorgeous costumes, an impressive set bedecked with chandeliers, protestations of love, sacrifice, longing, mortality, familial squabbles… there’s even a guy dressed as a matador at one point. And amazing voices joined together in song. Wow.

And even with the “please don’t leave me!” and “oh, I’m dying of consumption!” histrionics, it was still very moving. I was surprised by that, but shouldn’t have been, because in addition to the singing there is actual acting that goes on too, and I got rather pleasantly swept up in it all.

La Traviata means “The fallen woman” and the plot revolves around Violetta, a French courtesan, a party girl who after resisting for a time, realises that actually the party can’t go on forever. She moves with her lover, Alfredo, to the country and everything’s rosy (literally, the set was covered in roses at this point)…until it’s not. There is heartbreak and anger, shame, and remorse – basically every terrible break-up you’ve ever had.

Verdi’s opera is based on the play The Lady of the Camellias which was itself adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of the Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers). Also known as Camille in the English speaking world, it has been adapted numerous times on stage and film, including a 1984 movie starring Greta Scacchi, Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth. It’s certainly a story that has legs (and some rather annoying gender politics but sometimes you just have to note these things, wish they were otherwise, and move on).

My takeaways from the evening were –

  • I’m a sucker for love stories
  • I didn’t fully appreciate just what a properly trained human voice was capable of. Crikey!
  • I really need a spangled gold bolero jacket
Incredible costumes
Incredible costumes, Photo by Neil MacKenzie

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Everything you wanted to know about opera but were afraid to ask

Confession time. I have never been to an opera.

I’ve seen Shihad play more times than I can remember. I’ve been to performances of “experimental music” that I’d rather not recall. Kapa haka? Count me in. But never opera. Which seems like a bit of an oversight on my part.

La Traviata
NZ Opera’s La Traviata. Image supplied

Luckily NZ Opera are performing Verdi’s La Traviata in Christchurch starting this week and a combination of factors have led to me taking up the challenge of my first ever operatic experience –  namely that I love big, loud live music, getting to dress up, and being inside the restored Isaac Theatre Royal.

But not wanting to dive in without some idea of what to expect I sat down with Christchurch opera singer and member of the “Trav” cast, Amanda Atlas who answered all my silly questions and made me think this opera lark might be quite fun, actually. This is some of what I learned*.

The top 6 things you need to know about opera

  1. It’s not amplified. The singers don’t have any microphone assistance, unlike what you might get with musical theatre, for instance. Opera singers have to be powerful enough to sing over the top of a full orchestra and still be heard. This is why operatic training takes a long time and why the top singers are usually a little older. However…
  2. Opera singers are not all fat. That’s not really a thing. As evidence I offer the cast line-up of La Traviata. Who would have guessed a cartoonish stereotype wasn’t actually realistic?
  3. It’s just like watching a foreign language film, but live. Everything is sung in Italian (depending on the opera – there are operas in German, for instance), but there’s a screen above the stage with “surtitles” so you can follow what’s happening.
  4. There’s an intermission (and there’s a bar). I may have expressed mild concern that the performance is scheduled to start at 7.30pm and doesn’t end until 10pm but Amanda assured me that there would be a break, if for no other reason than the orchestra needs one. Fair enough! Happy to enjoy a mid-opera wine while they rest their talented fingers.
  5. You can wear jeans! Yes, opening night is a bit more glamorous and folk tend to dress up a bit more, but people can and do go to opera in normal street clothes (and nobody boos or throws rotten fruit at them).
  6. It’s not super expensive. Well, some seats are but opera tickets cost about the same as other concerts you might go to (I checked, and indeed, our Weird Al Yankovic tickets from last year cost about the same as those for La Traviata).
Amanda Atlas
Professional opera singer, Amanda Atlas. Image supplied.

Amanda Atlas’ passion for opera is clear whenever she speaks about it… she also completely spoiled the plot of La Traviata by telling me the ending but I’m hoping that won’t matter too much. I will only say that it’s about a French courtesan named Violetta who has consumption and falls in love…

This production of La Traviata is a traditional one – think beautiful costumes and chandaliers. The word Amanda uses is “sumptuous”.

Opera is timeless

…opera doesn’t necessarily have to be reinterpreted because the stories are timeless, it’s all love and relationships generally, and power and sex and betrayal and they’re just great stories, and interpreted by great composers. I’ve always been extremely moved by it and there are some operas that I find difficult to sing because I get so emotional.

It’s full of emotion

It turns out emotion is a big part of the appeal of opera, for both performers and audience.

We want to make the audience feel that emotion and cry…and the music is just glorious and heart-breaking.

The music just captures human feeling and emotion with the naked human voice. Like when you hear a Māori waiata or someone singing at a funeral, there’s this inherent emotion in the human throat when it’s not interfered with and for me, I think that’s what opera can really access in a way that some other things can’t necessarily.

Sometimes it’s like…Game of Thrones?

When it comes to picking favourites, it turns out that emotion also has its part to play, as Amanda explained the difference (for her, at least) between Italian operas and those in German.

Cover of The New Grove Guide to Wagner and His OperasI particularly love Wagner, which is the big, heavy German, crazy “brother-sister incest, and Gods striking down dwarves, and crazy over-the-topness” – it’s Game of Thrones basically… and that’s where my voice sits the most, so that’s my favourite thing to sing.

Also because for me personally when I sing Italian repertoire there’s something about it that actually does really make me emotional and so I sometimes find it more difficult to sing well because I’m…. not staying cold enough to just keep my technique solid. So when I sing Wagner, because it doesn’t get into my soul quite so much as Italian stuff, there’s a slight remove therefore I find it much easier to sing.

The Isaac Theatre Royal has great acoustics

It made me so happy when it reopened and it is wonderful to sing in. We’re really lucky to have it. It’s probably my second favourite theatre in New Zealand. My favourite one, funnily enough, is the Civic Theatre in Invercargill. The Civic Theatre in Invercargill has the best acoustic of any theatre I’ve ever sung in. It’s a very similar looking theatre, same style with the three tiers, but this one’s second.

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*Added opera vocabulary word for fun, “sitzprobe”, literally a “sitting rehearsal”.

Welcome back to the Isaac Theatre Royal

The Isaac Theatre Royal is reopening on Monday 17 November. We have been watching the progress of the renovation, and are so pleased to see this Edwardian beauty come back into the Christchurch cultural firmament.

The people of Christchurch, in seeing the need to establish a venue for the local music society to perform, constructed the Music Hall on the original site in 1863. Then a visiting American actor conceived the idea of a theatre. This met with the approval of the society and in 1863 after some structural alterations the venue was re-opened and re-named the Royal Princess Theatre. Productions staged until the building’s demolition in 1876 included Shakespeare’s Richard II, King Henry IV, The Merchant of Venice, and other classics like Don Giovanni. The second theatre was opened eighteen weeks after the closure. The present Theatre Royal, which stands opposite the original site in Gloucester Street, opened 25 Feb. 1908 with a performance of The Blue Moon. — The Press:, 4 Oct. 1905, p. 7/ 8; The Press, 26 Feb. 1908, p. 7.

Read more about its history on the Isaac Theatre Royal website.

Exterior view of the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, prior to opening [1907]
Exterior view of the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, prior to opening [1907] CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0061
Congratulations to all those who have worked so hard to make this happen.

Bravo!

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