Stars banished as opera chorus takes centre stage

The Herald’s critics take a look at some of the latest performances around town.

Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House, February 4
Until March 10

Usually, it falls to the operatic chorus to watch destiny unfold from the side, to create the “ordinary” from which extraordinary things appear, shout cheers, mutter jeers, cry tears and fret darkly that this is not going to end well.

In Chorus! the magnificent Opera Australia Chorus under conductor Paul Fitzsimon seized their own destiny, pushing the prima donna and primo uomo aside to make their own opera from 18 choruses written over three centuries.

The narrative was of a crowd populated with shyness and boldness, excitement and despair.

Director Matthew Barclay, movement coordinator, Troy Honeysett and lighting designer Matthew Marshall shaped a narrative of collectivism, in which the crowd was not faceless but populated with shyness and boldness, excitement and despair, and where individuals supported rather than killed each other.

Talk about a revolution! The stage was set from the chorus’s angle, as though from the back, and strewn with scenery crates, dangling cables and wheelie bins to collect the props.

In the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser male chorus members emerged obscurely from darkness before achieving stirring full voice with pianists Kate Johnson and Michael Curtain, followed by celestial light from the female chorus.

Such piety, it turned out, was for the God of football rather than heaven, and Puccini’s Humming Chorus from Madam Butterfly quietly comforted the inevitable disappointment. After the Moon Chorus from Turandot, the scenario flowed into a sequence of bucolic charm framed by numbers from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with Verdi’s Zitti, zitti (Rigoletto) sung with hushed pinpoint precision and the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore clamouring with lusty fatefulness.

A military episode began with the mock heroism of Bella vita militar from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte but the Soldiers’ Chorus from Gounod’s Faust left all the male singers slain, mourned in candlelight by nuns of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The darkness turned to love courtesy of Offenbach and dancing, champagne and a wedding ensued with music from Gounod and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

When the excitement cleared from the chorus at the start of Act 4 of Bizet’s Carmen, the Toreador lay dead on the floor and a statuesque female chorus member lamented with Purcell’s drooping wings from Dido and Aeneas.

In Make our garden grow from Bernstein’s Candide, the singers confessed they were neither pure, nor wise nor good, but, in addition to their splendid sound, the AO chorus had certainly shown they could act, hold the stage, strike a pose, and conjure charm or fear in small gestures to draw the listener in.
-Peter McCallum

Ensemble Theatre, February 1

Until March 4

Melanie Tait is a fine playwright, but she’s just missed the bullseye on this one. As plays and films stretching from Macbeth all the way to Bernd Eichinger’s brilliant screenplay for Downfall (about Adolf Hitler’s final weeks) have shown, villainous protagonists are much more compelling if we see some species of the charm that lure others into becoming victims or into turning a blind eye. The problem is that Mike King, played by Tony Cogin, does not just lack the charm the play wants him to have, he’s reptilian from the outset, and so his behaviour comes as no particular surprise.

Mike King, played by Tony Cogin, is reptilian from the outset.Credit:Prudence Upton

Mike is a successful radio talkback host of 30 years’ standing, with national reach from nine to noon each weekday morning. He’s also fond of behaving badly. Tait’s play has him surrounded by women who range or morph between being complicit and confrontational, and her work is about the power that position can bestow, and whether the lines around consensual sex are blurred or hard and fast.

He works for an ABC-like network (the contrast with commercial radio being emphasised), and when we first meet him, he’s fresh off the plane from Fiji, having attended an anger management retreat after hurling a mixing desk at an intern. Tait’s other characters are Louise, Mike’s long-term executive producer (Sharon Millerchip), Noa, a new junior producer (Alex King), Troy, the station manager (Ben Gerrard) and Jez, an ex-producer and now hugely successful podcaster (Amber McMahon).

Millerchip’s Louise is beautifully drawn and performed, and if Tait had created a Mike to match, or perhaps if Cogin could have oozed more magnetism, A Broadcast Coup would instantly be stronger. “Could you be more of a cliché?” Louise asks Mike at one point, and therein lies the problem. As she routinely does, Millerchip commands the stage with consummate ease, her Louise being smart, funny, briskly efficient and obsessively dedicated – so dedicated that she has been tidying up after Mike’s transgressions for years.

Designer Veronique Benett’s ingenious use of the stage allows Janine Watson’s production to flit between different settings – office, studio, bar, Mike’s place – with a fluidity that’s built into the script and is vital to maintaining a galloping comedic pace.

Despite everyone having a share of the laughs, the rest of the cast can’t quite match Millerchip’s performance – although their characters aren’t as complete, either. Gerrard makes the most of the clean-living, do-things-by-the-book Troy, imbuing him with a hurt dignity in the face of Mike’s onslaughts, and an amusingly infectious elation, later.

McMahon dials down her usual charisma to make Jez utterly relentless in her MeToo crusade, and while King is uneven as the young, cocky Noa, she nails some scenes, including sending up Mike and his ilk.

The play craves another layer of complexity to take it away from predictable patterns of character, behaviour and plot. Nonetheless, despite seeing the endpoint on the horizon from some way off, you are still inexorably drawn into it, both by the inherent morality tale and by Tait’s crisp wit, as when Noa says to Mike, “Women find that glistening celebrity, serious journalist, tucked-in shirt thing you have going super attractive.”

It’s also Noa who points out that inanity of the idea that men don’t get the hint when someone rebuffs their advances. “We’re human beings,” she says. “Were attuned to picking up what others are putting down.”

Alas, Mike’s not just stuck in a time warp, he’s probing a moral vacuum.
– John Shand

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