Focus On Bright Stars, Ambitious Arts Festival Creates A Constellation

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Yuliia Zasimova sings the title role in Stravinsky’s ‘The Nightingale’ at the Adelaide Festival. (Photo courtesy of the Adelaide Festival)

ADELAIDE — Ruth Mackenzie’s first iteration of the Adelaide Festival of Arts as artistic director is studded with marquee names bringing both safety and instant prestige value: Performance artists Marina Abramović and Laurie Anderson, choreographer Akram Khan, and pianist Vikingur Ólafsson are regular fixtures on the international festival circuit offering the well-heeled patrons the touchstones they know and are looking for. The big names also bring a kind of insurance policy for the artistic director, indemnifying her against any potential miscalculations or losses of other experimental and unproven acts.

It’s a canny and well-used ploy. Mackenzie’s programming of Robert Lepage and his 2009 Stravinsky double-bill production The Nightingale and Other Fables in tandem with Barrie Kosky and his 2021 Berliner Ensemble production of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera falls into the name-of-names category. Lepage and Kosky are synonymous with ushering opera into the 21st century with their idiosyncratic signatures. Lepage and Kosky are also darlings of the Adelaide Festival. As a one-time artistic director of the festival in 1996, Kosky began his career in the avant-garde theater circles of Melbourne as its star enfant terrible. Lepage can almost claim himself a resident of the festival with multi-media works such as The Seven Streams of the River Ota and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle etched irrevocably in the audience’s memory.

The Nightingale took the opening-night festival honor on March 1. The co-production by Opéra National de Lyon, Festival d’Aix en Provence, Canadian Opera Company, and Dutch National Opera in collaboration with Ex Machina has already had a long career. Fifteen years on from its premiere, it has, by Lepage’s own words, received many manifestations, but at its heart Lepage’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s setting of “The Emperor’s Nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen is an excursion in cultural tourism. In Lepage’s hands, Andersen’s slight moral fable is brought to life through the acquisition of various Asian puppet and visual-theater traditions including Vietnamese water puppets, bunraku, Taiwanese hand puppets, and Taiwanese shadow play. The question is why? Andersen’s setting is the first obvious reason. The story recounting the friendship between an Emperor and nightingale is set in Ancient China. The second reason seems to me rather disquieting.

A scene from the Adelaide Festival production of Stravinsky’s ‘The Nightingale’ (Photo courtesy of the Adelaide Festival)

In a recent radio interview for the national broadcaster in Australia, Lepage said that “Opera singers are always a bit clumsy or they don’t know what to do with their bodies… they are always a bit taken aback when directors ask them to do complicated movements.” 

With little faith in his singers to perform as actors, Lepage’s production fails to succeed as a musical performance and as a virtuosic piece of puppet theater. While Lepage maintains due diligence and respectful homage to the puppetry traditions of Vietnam and Japan, by night’s end I just wanted to hear singers doing what they do best: singing to the fullest with heart, mind, and body. I have no objections to stand and deliver.  

With the world’s most respected opera companies and festivals as co-producers, you have to expect good singers. And this is what we got. Despite the singers wading in water and manipulating puppets with two hands, voices somehow emerged. Ultimately, the performances were restricted emotionally, and try as they might to meld their voices close to the puppet characters they were portraying and carrying, the singers sounded defeated.

Ukrainian soprano Yuliia Zasimova brought supple voice, charm, and radiance to the titular role of the nightingale. Pure in pitch and sprightly in mood, there was never any doubt her voice would twitter and tweet to the highest notes and embellishments. We were in safe hands.

As the Emperor, bass Taras Berezhansky, a fellow Ukrainian, brought a lovely legato tone, but sadly for him, as it was for most of the singers, his performance was dwarfed by the distracting shadows and manipulating strings and rods of the puppets around him. 

Gabriel Schneider portrays Macheath in the Adelaide Festival production of Weill’s ‘The Threepenny Opera.’ (Photo by Moritz Haase)

The accompanying orchestra — the city’s own Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Alejo Pérez — was as steadfast and dependable as you could hope.

At the opening-night performance The Threepenny Opera on March 6, artistic director Mackenzie announced before the performance that there was a problem with the hydraulic system in the preparations, resulting in some staging restrictions. For those who had seen the performance in Berlin and elsewhere, post-performance chatter in the foyer suggested that the performances were more muted. For those who were unaware, this production of Threepenny was as palpable as could be imagined.

Kosky’s Threepenny Opera is set on grand multi-tiered scaffold; think of the cell block in the musical Chicago. For the entirety of the performance, the cast scales up and down the boxes and terraces dressed either in stylish black and white or lurid colors. The staging is deliberately minimalistic and non-referential, offering the audience every opportunity to focus in on the performances.

This is a visceral, gutsy, non-operatic, non-beautiful, Brechtian singing style. This aesthetic might sound unappealing to some, but what transpires is an interpretation that is riveting for its directness and staccato sharpness of delivery, and one in which the choreography of the body is characterful.

Barrie Kosky’s production of ‘The Threepenny Opera‘ is set on grand multi-tiered scaffold. (Photo courtesy of the Adelaide Festival)

For his production, Kosky has drawn his cast from the Berliner Ensemble, and he owes a great deal to his musical director-pianist Adam Benzwi for his singular approach to Weill’s famous oom-pah-pah ballads and signature songs. The vocal style itself is an entirely original technique: half-Sprechstimme, crisper-than-crisp articulation, melodies still intact.

Every performance was a study in control and style. The precocious Gabriel Schneider as Macheath was treacherously beguiling in voice and evil suave. As Polly Peachum, long-standing cast member Cynthia Micas brought incandescence, and Laura Balzer’s Lucy was a masterclass in vaudeville. Together, the actresses sparked as dueling firecrackers. Tilo Nest (as Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum) and Constanze Becker (as his wife, Celia) anchored the cast.