Freeze Frame Opera takes Claremont Showground on musical European Tour

David CusworthThe West Australian
Robert Hofmann, Naomi Johns, Hattie Marshall and Jun Zhang in Truck-o-rama The European Tour, for Freeze Frame Opera.
Camera IconRobert Hofmann, Naomi Johns, Hattie Marshall and Jun Zhang in Truck-o-rama The European Tour, for Freeze Frame Opera. Credit: Robbie Harrold

Somewhere between grieving and daring to dream, Freeze Frame Opera gives a glimpse of the joys coronavirus has eclipsed with Truck-o-rama, The European Tour.

“It’s not the year for a full staged opera but we wanted to make a show that felt good and took you to places you can’t go to now,” director Rachel McDonald explained.

Four artists each sang highlights from a distinct European tradition, and shared a part of their own journey – at times poignant or humorous, always entertaining.

But first, a medley overture introduced Trio Tiramisu: pianist Tommaso Pollio, accordionist Cathie Travers and cellist Sophie Curtis; tireless accompanists all night.

Cello and piano channelled familiar themes of Vivaldi, then rich, dark tones of Bach in solo cello, before rocking out to Saint-Saens.

Centre-stage in a freezing Claremont pavilion was a flat-bed farm truck which had served as a wayside stage during lockdown and now transported each artist to their “destination”, back projection adding dimension to distant scenes – a deft design by Robbie Harrold, Leaf Watson and Megan Parker.

Soprano Naomi Johns chose French repertoire, launching with Voyage a Paris (Poulenc) brightly evoking the simple pleasure of travel, while L’invitation au voyage (Duparc) expressed yearning with abundant calm and sensual delight, duetting nicely with cello.

Exstase (Duparc) became a torch song in Jerry Reinhardt’s understated lighting, yet always delicate.

Smoking – who would dare now? – summoned the ennui of Hotel (Poulenc), with perhaps a hint of quarantine detention.

Les chemins de l’amour (Poulenc) became a jaunty waltz with accordion highlights, as Johns redonned gloves and coat to signify departure, her pared-back delivery rising to a passionate climax for Thais (Massenet) and Dis moi que je suis belle!

Jun Zhang next shared a “Chineapolitan” take on O sole mio (Di Capua), folkloric accordion in fine counterpoint to poignant tenor, the surtitles morphing to Chinese as he mined his own heritage, refreshing a familiar standard (think ice-cream commercials).

Marechiare (Tosti) took Zhang to Cottesloe, where the young migrant first immersed himself – literally – in Aussie beach culture, warming to the task in a full-throated paean to nature, water and light.

Heartache came next with Musica proibita (Gastaldon), an impassioned tale of forbidden love, again reflecting Zhang’s story.

Core ’ngrato (Cardillo) dialed up to heartbreak, wistfully lilting with the accordion, morphing to unrequited passion and grand phrases over booming piano.

La Danza (Rossini) saw hope reborn in the exhilaration of dance, with a paper crown to enhance the mood, before Johns, Hattie Marshall and Robert Hofmann swelled the strain with Nessun Dorma (Puccini), another familiar tear-jerker.

After interval, an almost Kletschmer rendition of Ride of the Valkyries (Wagner) seemed doomed to stall on the heroic final journey until Marshall burst on to the scene in horned helmet and flowing cape, belting out the soaring melody with dramatic effect.

Here the surtitles wisely withheld the lyric — look it up if you want to know why — yet there was humour enough in the cadence.

A soprano sings a lot about love, Marshall noted, launching Elsa’s dream (Wagner) with full effect, voicing the agony of doomed aspiration: “He will be my saviour.”

Gretchen am Spinnrade (Schubert) spoke of Faustian fate, feverish accompaniment fading with hope.

Two wedding presents completed the set: Widmung, Robert Schumann’s gift to wife Clara, had an air of mystery, perhaps foretelling a complex union; while Richard Strauss’s triumphal Zueignung, dedicated to Pauline, closed on an optimistic note.

Last but not least, a flamenco flourish in piano and cello for Chiquitita La Novia (Obradors) introduced Hofmann’s authentic German offering.

O Mein Papa (Burkhard) displayed tight diction and gesture but also genuine warmth, with all the showmanship of musical theatre.

Wien, du Stadt meiner Traume (Sieczynski) and Capri Fischer (Winkler) illustrated how, as Hofmann put it, “Germans like the sound of places like Italy that are less uptight”.

Chez Maxine, from Lehar’s Merry Widow, turned towards Vaudeville in style, while Illusions (Hollander) channeled cabaret with a Marlene Dietrich vibe: “In this crazy paradise you are in love with pain”.

To wind up, Hofmann led audience participation in a boisterous drinking song before an encore of Still Call Australia Home brought the full company back to close out a cathartic sentimental journey.

Truck-o-Rama The European Tour is on Thursday to Saturday, August 13-15, 7 pm at Claremont Showgrounds’ Centenary Pavilion. Tickets at freezeframeopera.com.

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