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sydney festival


masks of fashion and power

keith gallasch: sydney festival: semele walk; a masked ball


Aleksandra Zamojska, Armin Gramer, Semele Walk Aleksandra Zamojska, Armin Gramer, Semele Walk
photo Jamie Williams
DESPITE MANY PRONOUNCEMENTS OF ITS IMMINENT DEMISE OVER THE LAST HALF-CENTURY AND MORE, OPERA APPEARS TO BE ALIVE AND KICKING.

New works are appearing regularly in the international repertoire, premiere productions are broadcast globally to cinemas and the internet provides a treasure chest of historical and recent productions. Two works, an opera-inspired ‘show’ and a Verdi classic in the Sydney Festival revealed both the appeal of and the challenges to a form that is enjoying revival and transformation.

semele walk

Semele Walk, a Sydney Festival centrepiece about a vain mortal who gets screwed for screwing a god, seduced audiences into surrendering themselves to astronomically priced high art, described by a friend as “80 minutes of froth…”

But Semele Walk was for more than opera goers—who were doubtless wary of spending big on a radically reduced version of Handel’s near three-hour 1744 opera Semele. It was the promise of the costuming by Vivienne Westwood, enduring queen of punk/haute couture crossover that attracted a multitude of fashionistas, fans and the simply curious. Clutches of wildly be-gowned Westwood worshippers swanned about the foyer, posing for elderly iPhone snappers, and were duly rewarded with the sight of a multitude of striking outfits displayed by strutting professional models and the lead instrumentalists in the small orchestra.

Two superb European singers and the orchestra did justice to Handel and director Ludger Engels made his catwalk scenario more than mere conceit. On a long, wide platform running the length of Sydney Town Hall, the models appeared other than human, hair swept up in nests, platform-booted, their flesh and materials seemingly hybridising, and faces otherworldly—half-veiled, masked by makeup and, of course, deadpan. They could have been a host of promenading lesser goddesses, gloriously in step with the music’s pulse and aetherial in mood as Handel’s soaring line.

Aleksandra Zamojska, Semele Walk Aleksandra Zamojska, Semele Walk
photo Jamie Williams
However, among them is a dissident—Semele, fashionably attired but neither spectacular nor as elegant, and nowhere near as tall. This mere mortal squeezes into the parade, is bumped and buffeted and then defeated, as she abjectly acknowledges, by her vanity. But pride wins out. Polish soprano Aleksandra Zamojska’s wildly red-headed Semele is brattish and unyielding. Having been seduced by Jupiter in human shape, she desires to make love to the god in his divine form and become immortal (this impossible idea has been planted by Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno). Even when Jupiter tells Semele that she will be destroyed by the act she fatally proceeds. Zamojska conveys the joys and frustrations of her ambition with copious energy, dancerly verve and, above all, singing that is lucid and as crystalline as might warrant the transformation of Semele into a goddess.

Austrian counter tenor Armin Gramer as Jupiter is elegantly and seductively subdued, and the only character whose face is not masked—even Semele painted white. A series of intense encounters between the two, are by turns erotic, tender, argumentative and near violent, and better dressed. Once Jupiter gives Semele the Earth, inadvertently furthering her ambitions, her new multi-layered outfit of glorious transparent, opalescent material that captures light and amplifies movement, flies around her. Jupiter’s military dandy jacket, kilt and knee-high socks are bejewelled and threaded with silver.

Director Engels intensifies our sense of involvement with a surprise—fellow audience members burst into glorious, choral outpouring. The orchestra, placed halfway along the catwalk, to one side, is also a highly visible part of the performance, its Westwood-dressed members later taking to the stage like rock musicians. Plugged into portable mini-speakers they play out a strand of increasingly dissonant music that has been building between arias and duets as Semele’s passion threatens to destroy her.

In the end, Semele, determined to unite with her lover, walks into a huge, vertical baton of golden light (the real Jupiter revealed), disappearing in the blinding glare. Jupiter emerges pulling a small trolley along the length of the catwalk in the form of a golden bar—presumably ‘essence’ of Semele, since the chorus then joyfully celebrates the news that the offspring of Jupiter’s union with Semele will be a god, Bacchus.

Semele Walk proved to be an exhilarating experience, if not at all far from the many productions these days that fuse contemporary design, graphic art, fashion, architecture and media art with operas from the past. Of course, this economised version cannot do justice to the complete work, nor was it always intelligible. Unmiked singers meant that when they turned away from us words and notes evaporated. The too spare précis in the program and handout and the absence of surtitles meant that audience members tolerated degrees of mystification. Handel played second fiddle to Engels and Westwood, but Semele Walk was special. My friend concluded, “It’s froth—but what froth!”

a masked ball

A Masked Ball, Opera Australia A Masked Ball, Opera Australia
photo Prudence Upton
Musically, Opera Australia’s production of Verdi’s A Mask Ball (1859) is magnificent. Theatrically however it is at once adventurous and staid. Directed and designed by La Fura dels Baus’ Alex Olle, Alfons Flores and Lluc Castells, it takes the notion of the mask and pushes it to thematically rich if sometimes indavertantly comic extremes.

In a not too futuristic totalitarian society every one at first appears to be masked—politicians, bureaucrats and security guards—but not protesters, who are presumably regarded by the authorities as faceless. In the course of events, masks come off, revealing King Gustav’s lover to be the wife of his best friend, Renato. The vengeful Renato’s mask is removed after he has, as part of a conspiracy, assassinated Gustav during the ball of the title (here reduced to a rather tepid office party). Renato is forgiven by a dying, and unmasked king. Yellow gas seeps through the floorboards as gas-masked conspirators stage a deadly coup, the assembled elite dying as they sing of the horror they have witnessed. The directors have opted for a double dose of despair, just as the masking has been doubled—Renato was already a masked citizen before assuming a conspirator’s mask, the assembly is doubly masked at the ball. And why would a masked society stage a masked ball?

A Masked Ball, Opera Australia A Masked Ball, Opera Australia
photo Prudence Upton
On the upside, the masking meant that the singers had to convey emotion principally through song and gesture for substantial parts of the opera. The scene between an unmasked, distressed Amelia and the masked, unforgiving Renato was particularly moving, as was Renato’s subsequent expression of his sense of loss. The mask motif achieved some measure of complexity and emotional power in these moments.

While masking provided the performers with a challenge, the set design did not. ‘Concrete’ columns and linking platforms flew up and down conveying a sense of sheer verticality—a building with executive suite, a vast bureaucratic space, the world of the street below, and beneath that a wasteland littered with junkies. However the deployment of performers could have come from any conventional staging of a traditional opera, quite at odds with the design’s futurism. Nevertheless this A Masked Ball was a bold, strikingly realised and thematically consistent creation, if over-determined in the end to the point of utter fatalism, but without ever underestimating the power and subtlety of Verdi’s music.


Sydney Festival: Semele Walk, A show by Ludger Engels, couture by Vivienne Westwood, music by George Frideric Handel, singers Aleksandra Zamojska, Armin Gramer, conductor Olof Boman,Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, models Chic Management; Sydney Town Hall, Jan 11-15; Opera Australia, Giuseppe Verdi, A Masked Ball, conductor Andrea Molino, director Alex Olle, designer Alfons Flores, costumes Lluc Castells, performers Diego Torre, Tayrn Fiebig, Jose Carbo, Tamar Iveri; Sydney Opera House, Jan 16-Feb 12

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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