By: Apr. 17, 2015

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 17th April 2015

State Opera of South Australia are performing for two nights only at their Opera Studio, presenting a Double Bill comprising Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's Il Segreto di Susanna (Susanna's Secret), from 1909, and Béla Bartók's only opera, Bluebeard's Castle, from 1918.

Both productions, each running for about fifty minutes and pairing a soprano and a baritone, are directed and designed by David Lampard. The first piece performed is a comic intermezzo, sung in Italian, and the second is a psychological drama, sung in German, although the libretto, by Béla Balázs, was originally written in Hungarian and intended for the use of another composer, his friend Zoltán Kodály.

Il Segreto di Susanna features Naomi Hede and Joshua Rowe as the recently married Countess, Susanna, and her husband, Count Gil, from whom she must keep her secret. Her secret, however, has a habit of leaving behind clues that he detects, and from which he draws his own conclusions. As his suspicions grow, her attempts to avoid exposure lead to a humorous conversation at cross purposes, each assuming that the other means something different. Finally, he catches her.

The light-hearted comedy keeps the audience laughing as the Duke's temper increases, Susanna's fear of exposure grows, and the panic levels of their silent servant, Sante, go through the roof. Sante is played by Rod Schultz, who doesn't miss a trick in this physical performance role.

Naomi Hede and Joshua Rowe make a great duo, with lots of very nicely balanced interplay, bringing out the comedy inherent within the situation and the confused conversations. They have a good feel for comedy and a fine rapport but, importantly, their voices complement one another beautifully.

Bluebeard's Castle features Jeremy Tatchell and Deborah Johnson as Duke Bluebeard and his eloping bride, Judith. His castle has seven locked doors, and she is very inquisitive. She attempts to persuade him to allow her to see behind each door but, as he gives in, he insists that the final door remain locked. Each door reveals an aspect of his past, his personality, and his psyche, and it is not pretty. The very castle is a metaphor for Bluebeard himself. The symbolism in this work is enormous, but there are plenty of analyses available to study if anybody wants to pursue that aspect of this remarkable opera.

This production begins with the often omitted spoken prologue delivered by Tatchell before entering the performance area and assuming his character. He and Johnson manoeuvre around each other, almost sparring, as she persuades him, one by one, to give up his key to each door. Every door that opens affects him and, although he tries to dissuade her, she continues to profess her love for him and her wish to open up the castle completely. He knows too well what the last door will reveal. The power play is superbly reflected in the variations that they bring to their voices, offering a wealth of emotions as they move to the inevitable ending.

Daniel Barber's lighting design is extremely important in establishing the tension and depicting the changes as each door is opened, beginning with an almost completely dark stage, just making the two singers outlines visible. Each door adds another colour, but blood red prevails, tainting all.

The music for the first opera is a piano reduction, while the second is similar, but adds keyboards, for harp and organ passages, to the piano, as well as has the addition of a percussionist. David Barnard is the musical director, and Andrew Wiering is on percussion. Andrew Georg was the repetiteur and, with David McClean operated the English surtitles. The music for Bluebeard is extremely complex, polytonal and with very dense harmonies and, having to also switch quickly between piano and keyboard, it is a real challenge. In this case, it was made to look almost easy, however, with some superb playing by Barnard.

This is a must for all opera lovers and, as well as two main stage operas, Don Giovanni and Faust, and a performance of Verdi's famous Requiem, another double bill is also in this year's programme. That is a lot to look forward to. There is only one more performance of this double bill, on Saturday evening at 7:30 in the Opera Studio, Marion Road Netley and, with opening night tonight sold out, be sure to book quickly.

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