A spectacular blend of skating and singing beguiles audiences

Imagine the stage at the Royal Opera House Muscat extended over the pit, iced over and turned into a giant skating rink. Then imagine the impeccable Prague Philharmonia, Muscat’s favourite orchestra, placed at the back of the stage on a raised platform, under guest conductor Dario Salvi. The magical worlds of ice-skating and first-class opera with multi-media effects were presented by Willy Bietak Productions last weekend.
The curtain rose to Shostakovich’s ‘Festive Overture’, revealing the company of skaters in a stunning performance of spins and jumps with perfect synchronisation. Figure-dancing is like Ballet-on-speed; the movement is fast and constantly turning, while leaps and pirouettes demand spontaneous applause for their sheer breathtaking brilliance. Special Guest Stars and 2014 Olympic Ice Dance Champions, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, made their first appearance at the end of this number with some spectacular feats and lifts, received with gasps and sighs.
The first operatic extracts came from Puccini’s much loved, ‘La Bohème’. Young Argentinian tenor, Francisco Brito, is well-established on the international circuit, but sung with a microphone in the aria, ‘Caro! Fuori il Danaro’ for reasons which quickly became apparent. When solo skater, the Canadian Medallist Christopher Mabee took to the ice, the sound of blade on ice would have disturbed the acoustic of Brito’s natural projection. When Mabee made a particularly arresting gesture the audience clapped spontaneously — interrupting at a poignant vocal moment. Taking the hand of Italian soprano, Martina Bortolotti, the words, ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’ took on a new meaning above the freezing ice-rink! Ms Bortolotti has an impressive résumé, and she had a heavy role in Part One of the show, taking the soprano solo in nearly every song. The thatched farm backdrop did not quite evoke a Parisian Street café, but the duet between them, ‘O Soave Fanciulla’ brought a palpable chemistry, mirrored by Californian dance-partners in identical costumes, Nick Barsi-Rhyne and Cali Fujimoto. The figure skating magnified and heightened the emotion of each song, and when there was pure artistry without interruption, the effect was superb.
The highly experienced Austrian soprano Ira. Now returning she entranced the audience with her heart-felt rendition of ‘Quando M’en Vo’ beautifully shadowed unobtrusively by Dutch-born skater, Lexis Verhulst.
The ‘Interlude’ from ‘Hänsel Und Gretel’ showed a captivating animation of the story being illustrated. A natural woodland grew around the orchestra, and Humperdinck’s Operetta for children was the best selection to enchant an audience of all ages, with choreography and singing perfectly balanced. Italian mezzo-soprano Gaia Petrone had the warmth of a contralto timbre, yet the boyishness of Hänsel. Opposite her Martina Bortolotti’s Gretel matched delightfully in the famous dancing-game song, ‘Dance Mit Mir’, while female dancers dressed identically circled around them. Ira Lauren cast a captivating spell in, ‘Little Sandman’s Song’ along with Michigan skater, Angela Vandermissen’s graceful serenity as the children slept. They sung the ‘Sleep Song’ so endearingly as they awoke, juxtaposed with three female dancers in fairy-silver tutus, the audience was lulled into silence. The set ended with an appropriate ‘Knursperwaltzer’ for Russian dancer, Sergei Petaykin with Tanya Bakerman in a ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ Finale.

Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ was a return to the classical repertoire and included some delightfully light, amusing moments. The familiar, ‘Di Provenza il Mar’ was sung from the back in a brilliant solo by the third guest star of the evening, the celebrated Austrian baritone, Markus Werba. With weighty gravitas he regaled his daughter, while Seoul-born skater, Paul Wood, mesmerised with his impeccable flight.
The famous duet, ‘Libiamo ne Lieti Calici’, brought the first part of the show to a rousing conclusion with an arresting coloratura cadenza from a flirtatious Ms Bortolotti opposite Brito’s commanding tenor lines.
Part Two opened in Flamenco vein for Bizet’s ‘Carmen Suite’, dancing on eight chairs and setting a sultry taverna mood. Inappropriately backed by the ubiquitous Austrian lake scenery, Ms Petrone’s ‘Habanera’ more than compensated albeit in challenging French, she made a convincingly seductive Carmen. Markus Werba returned to sing Escamillo’s brilliant baritone solo, describing the excitement of the bullring, while Jeremy Extracts from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ were altogether much darker and more serious. Huge silhouettes of the Don killing the Commendatore were projected menacingly during the ‘Overture’. Markus Werba provided a credible philandering Don as seducer in ‘La Ci Darem La Mano’, beautifwully paired with Lauren’s soprano line. Delightful choreography by Chris Nolan was performed effectively by the English skater, Julia Bailey and Hungarian-born Tamas Sari. Werba was formidable as murderer in the dialogue, ’a Cena teco’, in a special virtual appearance of the American bass, Morris Robinson, in a distorted projection of the Commendatore’s ghostly face. It was preceded by a virtuoso tenor cadenza from Brito in, ‘Il mio Tesoro Intanto’ with equal virtuosity from skater Brandon Mroz.
Mussorgsky’s spooky ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ was evocatively danced by five ghouls in a haze of dry-ice fog against a boiling cauldron background.
In complete contrast came Strauss’s ‘Die Fledermaus: Interlude’, set in a 19th century ballroom with skaters wearing period ball gowns and military attire.
The formidable Gaia Petrone played another trouser role singing, ‘Chacun à son gout’ beautifully at front stage and skated by a matching Mabee. Ira Lauren took up stage left, magnificent in a red gown with the challenging ‘Laughing Song’, well placed and highly ornamented, while equally blonde Finnish skater, Sari Kauppinen performed a captivating waltz behind.
A poignant recollection of her ‘Homeland’ was sung with yearning melos in her impossibly high tessitura by Martina Bortolotti while Davis and White performed their finest Czardas pas-de-deux. The famous waltz, ‘Love and Wine’ was sung as an amusing Quintet, followed by a stunning polka Finale, ‘Ein Souper’ — almost a show in itself — and concluded the superb skating extravaganza on ice.

Georgina Benison
Photos: Khalid al Busaidi