I thought I would wait until next weekend to pay OA's new Cosi a second visit, but as it clashes with the Conservatorium production of Il Signor Bruschino — and as I was starting to feel restless and rudderless after three weeks away from the opera theatre — I decided on Friday to see the following evening's performance. Playing it fast and loose paid off: I showed up at the box office at 4 o'clock, asked for E-reserve ($47) and was promptly offered C-reserve for $55. Very nice.
Much was made in the advance publicity for this show of the cast having been "hand picked" by director Jim Sharman. So if it's Jim we have to thank for plucking Sian Pendry out of bit parts and casting her as Dorabella, then thank him I most certainly do. I'm so pleased to discover I'm not the only one who's wanted to hear her in larger roles, and in this role I think she's proving us right. There are rough edges here and there, and her diction went AWOL on opening night (it was better last night), but it's a warm and distinctive voice and one I'm keen to hear again. Opera Australia has a wealth of gorgeous mezzos, it's true, but Sian has something unique to offer and I'm glad the company is fostering it. Besides which, she's hilarious: her confused facial expressions (which will be visible in close-up come Wednesday night) are one of the funniest parts of the show — as is her champagne-swilling "Smanie implacabile".
Rachelle Durkin's Fiordiligi is the best thing she's done for OA since I went mad for her Alcina. She comes up with convincingly neurotic Fiordiligi — funny enough to spend three hours with, serious enough to make her "Per pieta" quite believable. In fact the aria is one of this production's most beautiful moments. After all the running around and confetti-throwing which precedes it, for this touching aria, everything comes to a standstill: Fiordiligi just kneels at the front of the stage and sings, and doesn't move until the music compels movement. The way Rachelle sings it is pretty extraordinary, too: very stripped back, soft and exposed. Her agile, silvery voice is irresistible in this music.
Tiffany Speight is just adorable as Despina, and of the three women, she might just be the most stylish singer: she's very much the mistress of this sort of Mozart role, and all that recit — in Italian or English — just rolls off her tongue. She seems to be having a lot of fun with the role — and with Jim's take on it, which gives her a fun, vaguely feminist (though possibly not the kind of feminism Germain Greer would condone) slant — and the sparkle is infectious. The only problem with Despina is that it's not a role built to show off the inherent beauty of a voice, but the loveliness of Tiffany's shines determinedly through all the same — that is, when one's not distracted by the spangled catsuit, the pink mop, and the striptease, all of which are brilliant.
Of the boys, I think I need to give first mention to Henry Choo. I know I haven't always been wildly enthusiastic about all of Henry's performances, but that's all the more reason to emphasise how excellent I think he is as Ferrando. His voice has rarely sounded better: not just in the obviously beautiful "Un aura amorosa", but in a bright and forceful "Tradito, schernito", which I actually thought was his best moment. And apparently he doesn't actually need to breathe, which is useful for a tenor. His acting is likewise the best I've seen from him: his loopy, clownish Ferrando is marvellous, with an appealing talent for falling over, and despite the ludicrous green outfit and appalling facial hair, he manages to hold onto just enough human frailty that when he's crushed — he really does seem crushed.
Shane Lowrencev is possibly even funnier as Guglielmo. Hard to say exactly why: he's just one of those people who is funny just by being there. His height (sorry, one day I'll manage to write about him without mentioning it, but for heaven's sake, he's 6'8!) is a part of that but it isn't the whole story: his wonderfully snakeish physicality and his wicked way with a comic lines also add considerably to his hilariousness. As does his voice itself, I think: that rich, resonant and potentially very solemn bass lends an ironic sort of gravity to the silliness he's obliged to spout forth. The staging of his "Donne mie" is pure genius: he sings it not just to women in general, but to specific women in the audience, who have the houselights and a camera turned on them. (It's not really as cruel as it sounds.) I do miss some of that booming quality which was on show in his Polyphemus (a true bass role) but he handles the higher tessitura here very nicely all the same.
Oh my. What is the world coming to when José Carbo is the last singer I mention in a review? Too late now to place him first — and it wouldn't make very much sense if I did — but he retains his place among my favourites. I've read a few comments here and there to the effect that José seemed uncomfortable singing in English, which I confess astonishes me: I thought his delivery of the translated text was possibly the best in the show. The only problem — this much I will concede — is that sometimes he does it so well that it sounds more like speech than opera. But the role is recit-heavy in any language, and what I loved about José's Alfonso was that he didn't sound English — he sounded Australian, twangy vowels and all. And when he does get to unleash that stunner of a voice, well, it's bliss, however fleeting. He does a sterling job as the purple-clad ringmaster of this amorous circus, an advisor whose cynicism is the product of experience rather than age. Can you believe we get to hear both José and Peter C-W as the Count Almaviva next year? Spoilt or what?
The cast was hand picked. I don't think the conductor was, but it seems like Simon Hewett was just the right choice anyway. On opening night he dashed in and started the overture even before the lights had gone down or the audience had stopped talking — a touch I loved, a sort of ambush in keeping with the spirit of the evening. Last night's entrance was more conventional: he arrived, took a bow, and began. Oh well. Either way, he leads this opera with fitting blend of enthusiasm and refinement. It's quite fast-paced, but not sinfully so: the soft, floaty moments are left intact, including that trio, which doubles as a wedding dance. The chorus has so little to sing it seems slightly disingenuous to heap praise on them: but they're always good, and they're good in this.
The production is worth a post or two on its own. In fact, I might use next week's telecast as an excuse to give it just that. I love its wit and its exuberant celebration of love in all its troublesome forms, and I love its endearing theatricality. Show is layered upon show: two Japanese newlyweds watch the lovers, we watch them and the lovers, and everybody (the lovers, the newlyweds and the audience) shows up at some point on the big screen at the back. Singers sing to themselves, to each other, to the newlyweds and to the audience: sometimes all within the space of ten minutes. Nor is it just the singers who are celebrated by this hyper-theatrical (and hyperactive) show. Sharman's Cosi makes stars of the whole creative team: lighting, sets, costumes and video design all have their share of the limelight, and somehow, they take it without overshadowing the singing.
Somehow. The way I've described it, it probably sounds like a mess, and yet it most decidedly isn't. It's sheer delight, a Cosi presented with a dash of lunacy and a lot of love, where beauty and insanity mix freely, take liberties with one another, and blend together for a Happily Ever After which can't help but leave you smiling.