This adaptation of a Charlotte Wood novel is unflinching and profound

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The Weekend ★★★★½
Belvoir St Theatre, until September 10

Three women in their 70s gather to clean out the beach house of a friend who has died.

They must decide what to keep and what to throw away – but not just for Sylvie’s belongings. Her death is the catalyst to re-examine their relationships with each other, their lives and to consider how to navigate what one of them calls their “crone years”.

Belinda Giblin’s performance as Adele is outstanding.Credit: Brett Boardman

What unfolds is a profound and unflinching examination of long-standing friendships between women.

“It’s not a holiday,” insists uptight Jude. Actually, it is. It’s Christmas, the season of hope and joy.

But Jude doesn’t want exuberant Adele – an actor who can no longer land a role – sloping off to the beach when she could be cleaning cupboards. Nor does she want dishevelled Wendy, a feminist and public intellectual, bringing her smelly, incontinent dog into the house.

The women’s vastly different characters and the potential for friction between them are quickly established in Sue Smith’s incisive adaptation of Charlotte Wood’s 2019 novel.

It is also surprisingly funny, as the trio land some witty, acerbic lines in Sarah Goodes’ finely judged production.

With their long knowledge, the women know how to needle each other. But they can quickly segue to reminisce about shared, carefree joys from their youth. These women retain hopes and dreams.

Carole King’s It’s Too Late plays on the beach house stereo. But it’s not too late to learn about each other as dynamics shift, secrets are revealed and loyalties are tested.

Belinda Giblin is outstanding as sensuous, knowing Adele. Her joy and wonder at the world are transporting. Her rejection by an arrogant wunderkind director (Roman Delo) who she is desperate to impress is heartbreaking.

Toni Scanlan (Jude) and Melita Jurisic (Wendy) impress as they reveal the flaws in their characters and their pain as the ground shifts around them.

With his soulful eyes and creaky gait, Finn the old dog is magically evoked by a puppet. He’s a mysterious, ghostly presence in the novel, and with just part of his body fully realised on stage, Finn seems only half in this world. Puppeteer Keila Terencio deftly and unobtrusively operates him.

Puppeteer Keila Terencio with Finn the dog.Credit: Brett Boardman

Stephen Curtis’ circular wooden set avoids naturalism. The cloth backdrop and projections suggest a permeable membrane between human and non-human worlds. This was aided by Madeleine Picard’s sound design.

This bold, layered play is unafraid to ask big questions about grief, love and mortality. It is an affirmation of deep, mature friendships that are tested but endure.

Reviewed by Joyce Morgan

La Gioconda in Concert ★★★★★
Opera House Concert Hall, August 9

There was resplendence and relief as Jonas Kaufmann rose to the top B flat of Cielo e mar in act two of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, concluding what had been a masterclass in coloured subtlety and exquisitely tapered phrasing.

Jonas Kaufmann is one of the world’s greatest tenors.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

The resplendence arose from the rare radiance and fine-grained beauty of the sound that has made him among the world’s most sought-after tenors. The relief was that his peerless musical artistry had navigated the thousand fleshy infirmities to which the human voice is heir to at different times and places with such supreme mastery.

Kaufmann paced the performance with insightful dramatic intelligence, always vividly there when the theatrical moment required heroic intervention. As exiled hero Enzo, he was the best-known name among the six superb singers who brought this once-celebrated, now-faded jewel of the Italian operatic stage to such vivid life in the Concert Hall.

Saioa Hernandez delivered soaring vocal gestures of thrilling power and crimson passion as the “smiling lady” of the title – like Shakespeare’s Viola in Twelfth Night, she is smiling at grief. Hernandez commanded the stage, cutting through huge choral, orchestral and vocal forces with thrilling power in her upper register, and creating dark fateful definition to low notes. For her climactic scene in act four, she summoned yet more reserves of strength and generous vocal excess.

As her counterpart and nemesis, French baritone Ludovic Tezier brought menacing edge and a voice of shaded roughness to Barnaba, the villainous, ungodly spy of the Inquisition. Tezier sustained act one with unwavering stamina and returned to bring later dramatic moments to a brutal culmination.

Pinchas Steinberg conducted the Opera Australia Orchestra, while French baritone Ludovic Tezier played the villainous Barnaba.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble made a welcome return to these shores, singing La Cieca, Gioconda’s beloved mother, with richly seasoned, pleading depth. The preferred rival for Enzo’s affections, Laura, was sung with a shining silvered tone by mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis. Her cruel husband, Alvise, the sinister leader of the Inquisition, was taken by bass Vitalij Kowaljow, who led act three with a roundly moulded sound, veiled in icy smoothness.

Act three also provides La Gioconda’s other well-known excerpt, the much-bowdlerised ballet Danza delle ore (Dance of the Hours), which the Opera Australia Orchestra, under conductor Pinchas Steinberg, played with compact, disciplined string sound highlighted with bright flashes from woodwind. Singing from behind, the Opera Australia Chorus realised piety and parties with equal gusto and cohesive balance.

In addition to the individual strengths of the principal singers, it was the layered intensity of the ensembles, set out with such glistening contrapuntal clarity in the Concert Hall’s acoustics, which drew the listener into this dated drama with such gripping effect. This is a rare chance to hear Italian opera as it once was, and indeed ought to be.

La Gioconda in Concert is also at Sydney Opera House on Saturday, August 12.

Reviewed by Peter McCallum

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