Opera

BECAUSE I SAID SO

Bradley Gilchrist-piano, Matthew Reardon, Julie Lee Goodwin,Greg McCreanor,Ellen Malone
Bradley Gilchrist-piano, Matthew Reardon, Julie Lee Goodwin,Greg McCreanor and Ellen Malone in Harbour City Opera’s memorable Mother’s Day Concert,.

Harbour City Opera’s Mother’s Day concert used superb and passionately blended ingredients with which to bake us intensely flavoured delights. BECAUSE I SAID SO was a well-packaged and marketable concept. A crowd-pleaser with champagne, show bags and afternoon tea, it was also an impressive, endearing musical start to the company’s busy and interesting 2014 season.

Sixteen artists delivered arias, duets, a quartet and choruses from almost one and a half centuries of the operatic and art song repertoires. Outside of a staged opera the excerpts could have been in danger of emerging as a clumsy shopping list. This was not possible though in the hands of artistic director Sarah Ann Walker and well nuanced, evocative piano accompaniments from Bradley Gilchrist.

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LOVE BY LANTERNLIGHT

Bernice Zandona as Catherine, Damian Arnold as Hugo, and Laura King as Rosette

The talents of the Sydney Independent Opera begin 2014 by luring us into the world of opera buffa, in particular an engaging excursion into fine voiced French humour. This is in great contrast to the dramatic and full-scale operatic works the company has offered in the recent past. However their trademarks of fine orchestration, neat playing and enthusiastic singing from rising local stars are once again present.

Even though laws now don’t restrict opera companies in Sydney other than the government supported group to perform one act trifles, a little mid-19th century French satire and farce in contrast to other arts events and world news in general is a welcome diversion.

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ONEGIN

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Nicole Car as Tatyana & Dalibor Jenis as Onegin.Photo credit Lisa Tomasett

This is a magnificent ,inspired production of Tchaikovsky’s lyrical 1879 opera based on Pushkin’s novel .It is a new co-production from London directed by Kasper Holten, the ROH’s new( ish ) director of Opera.

Designers Mia Stensgaard (set) and Katrina Lindsay (costume) have conceptualised the production to feature three heavy ,imposing columns/doors which symbolically split the drama into the ’inner’ and’ outer’ worlds of the characters . The doors can be folded back /opened/closed /become a space for billowing curtains , the columns leant against despairingly or joyously. At one point Tatyana hides in a large bookcase which is part of this. Behind the doors are simple but very dramatically effective landscape projection that morph through the changing seasons.

It is a non naturalistic , minimalist sometimes dreamlike production .Holten has decided to show us the whole opera in flashback, using two dancers to play the younger Onegin and Tatyana, observed at all times by their older, wiser selves. Generally this works quite well but can be a little off putting and distracting , As the opera develops , what turns out to be the scattered remains of painful memory gradually assemble on stage – a scrunched up letter, a sheaf of hay, a pile of well read books, a broken chair, and towards the end Lensky’s corpse.

Musically, passionate Guillaume Tourniere is an excellent Tchaikovskian in the pit, very energetically leading the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in this most Romantic of Russian scores from the opening expression of melancholy to its overwhelming passionate conclusion. The orchestra play with delight and strength, the big waltzes and the polonaise are performed with gusto and there are some enchanting horn and wind solos in the very poignant love scenes. The large, tightly controlled chorus are also in excellent form, producing a large, dynamic sound; and exquisitely disciplined in their stage work too.

Olga , Tatyana’s sister was sweetly ,terrifically performed by Sian Pendry who sings gloriously . She is shown as far more ‘lively’ than Tatyana , more of a tomboy , cheerful ,energetic and into dancing etc. Yet she can be elegant and well behaved too when appropriate. She cannot resist Onegin – is it thoughtless of her to succumb to his attractions and dance so much with him at the ball , which leads to the fatal duel ?

Young ,handsome poet Lensky engaged to Olga was splendidly sung by James Egglestone .He has a bright ,concentrated tone. Is he right to be jealous of Onegin when he flirts with Olga at the ball or does he build a mountain out of a molehill ? We feel pity with his insistence on honour and satisfaction for his wounded, shaky pride.His aria just before the duel , as if he has a premonition ‘Kuda, kuda vï udalilis’ was superb , extremely moving . But as another of my colleagues has asked , after he has been shot in the duel ,why does he have to lie there for the rest of the show ? It can be quite distracting.

This opera could perhaps be called ‘Tatyana’ rather than Onegin as she emerges as the dominant character and it is seen through her eyes, Nicole Carr as Tatyana is superb, absolutely brilliant and ravishing . She holds the stage and handles the long and very difficult famous ‘Letter aria’ scene , which is at the heart of the opera ,passionately and magnificently , stopping the show. She is thoughtful , studious and passionate simultaneously . Her crisp but rich soprano is easily ,evenly spread across the full range and always linked to her character She reveals clarity ,freshness and vivid colour combined with expressive immediacy. And I love the beautiful Renoir like white ruffled dress she wears.

Onegin is portrayed by the Czech baritone Dalibor Jenis making his Opera Australia debut with flair. He has a strong dramatic and visual presence and musically his dark velvety baritone blends well with Car .His voice has a strong , polished sound, but there are undertones hinting at edginess and apathy simultaneously . He makes the dramatic transition from cold politeness to thunderstruck yearning lover plausible and exciting.

Madame Larina , Tatyana and Olga’s mother , Mrs Bennett like seeking to marry her daughters off , was pertly played by Dominica Matthews .She is shown as brittle yet firm and possibly a drinker. Their loving nurse Filippyevna who comforts and looks after Tatayana and has a wonderful aria describing her youthful marriage was terrifically played and sung by Jacqueline Dark .Kanen Breen as Monsieur Triquet , an elegant , rather foppish French tutor was wonderful and performed his ‘party peice ‘ – the poem to Tatyana on her name day – with great panache.

Uxorious Prince Gremin was magnificently sung by lion like Konstantin Gorny in an imposing uniform. His aria “All men surrender to Love’s power ‘ showcases his glorious , rumbling bass . It is interesting to observe that in this version he overhears his wife’s declaration of duty and love.

An intelligent, very moving, visually pleasing and excellently sung production.

Running time 3 hours 10 mins (approx) one interval

EUGENE ONEGIN, Opera Australia in co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Fondazione Teatro Regio, Turin at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House; 29 February- 28 March 2014.

For more about Opera Australia in Tchaikovsky’s Onegin, visit http://www.opera.org.au

WILLOUGHBY SYMPHONY CELEBRATES VERDI

Conductor Nicholas Martin flamboyantly led the orchestra through a night of Verdi treasures
Conductor Nicholas Milton flamboyantly led the orchestra through a night of Verdi treasures

On a dismal, soggy, grey and wet afternoon we in the sold out audience were treated to a glorious concert by the Willoughby Symphony celebrating Verdi.

Act 1 had excerpts mostly from ‘Rigoletto’ and Act 2 concentrated on ‘La Traviata’ with selections from ‘Aida, ’’Nabucco’ included in a thrilling concert.

Nicholas Milton the conductor who introduced each piece was having a great time,  and in a very playful mood, joking and teasing, bringing joy both to the orchestra and the delighted, enthusiastic audience. Milton’s conducting, watching the two star singers intently, was energetic and inspired and, at times, dramatic.

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CARMEN

Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga, Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Carmen and Dmytro Popov as Don Jose in CARMEN. Pic Branco Gaica
Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga, Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Carmen and Dmytro Popov as Don Jose in CARMEN. Pic Branco Gaica

George Bizet’s CARMEN has been wowing opera-goers for over 140 years now with its alluring mixture of the unpredictable and dangerous, love and loathing, and, as the program notes state, “the ultimate femme fatale is back to stamp her feet, toss her hair and dance”.

As a staple of Opera Australia’s programming (the last major run at the Opera House was only a couple of years ago), American director Francesca Zambello was presented with a real challenge in bringing something fresh to the story of that most famous of feisty gypsy girls and the ultimately doomed desires of her suitors, whilst at the same time maintaining the levels of passion and intensity both musically and visually that the audience has come to expect.

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THE TURK IN ITALY

Emma Matthews as Fionella in Opera Australia's THE TURK IN MAY. Pic Lisa Tomasetti
Emma Matthews as Fionella in Opera Australia’s THE TURK IN ITALY. Pics Lisa Tomasetti

It is hard to believe that this is the bicentenary of the first production of this work, and that it has been rarely performed.  An absolute musical and visual treat, a hilarious blaze of slapstick and colour, ‘The Turk  in Italy’ by Rossini with its original Italian libretto by Felice Romani has been spectacularly re-imagined for the 21st century by a brilliant creative team .

It is musically superb .The Australian Opera and Ballet orchestra under the wickedly delightful and exuberant conducting of maestro Andrea Molino is in fine form and the singing is fabulous.

This is one production where close attention must be paid to the very contemporary subtitles by Simon Philips (at times very witty but they can also be vulgar, but always much fun).

No choreographer is credited, but the chorus have a wonderful time in a medley of very tightly set 1960’s-ish style dances (sort of think ‘Grease’ in a way) particularly in Act 2 with the multiple Elvises and Marilyns . And the extended opening at the beach with its bathing beauties and clumsy men, all put to the overture is magnificent.

The set is very Italy 1960’s, a revolve within a revolve, featuring a red and white Cafe Geronio, and the busy kitchen and penthouse and curved grassy knolls .One can imagine that there is a Vespa just parked around the corner and Prosdocimo will bring the cocktails and expressos shortly..

Samuel Dundas as Prosdocimo , aka ‘the poet’ , in this production dressed  as a frantic waiter, seeking inspiration for his play ,is the central figure that skilfully , wittily holds the opera together in a terrific , scintillating performance as he  carefully parodies, observes and at times manipulates the goings on of the people he deals with and serves . The trio for him and Geronio and Selim, as just one example, is tremendous.

This is a seaside town in summer and as can be expected tourist foreigners arrive by the boatload. One brings a band of gypsies and circus acrobats led by swarthy, scruffy Albazar (Graeme Macfarlane), who arrive almost simultaneously as a shipload of Turks ,  their head honcho being Pasha Selim. Selim was delightfully played and tremendously sung by Paolo Bordogna who gives a fabulous performance as the somewhat ridiculous yet macho and ‘hot’ primping poseur channelling at first The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and then Elvis who tries to get into bed with the local temptress Fiorilla.

As sad, lovesick Zaida, ( Selim’s first love who had been sold into slavery in the backstory and escaped)  Anna Dowsley is magnificent She sings gloriously and looks as if she stepped out of a Picasso painting.

As Narcisso , Geronio’s ‘friend’ who is desperately in love with Fiorilla, Luciano Botelho has a strong, flexible  tenor voice and brings the house down particularly with his second act aria when he is changing in the bathing shed.

Emma Matthews as Fiorilla steals the show from her first joyous, exuberant entrance. She sings divinely, is a fantastic comic actress, and has us enthralled from her first appearance singing of the joys of love . At the start she is flighty, flirty and determined to have a very good time however this changes in Act 2 and her enforced moral u-turn with her big show stopping aria where she gloriously lets rip with a dazzling technical display that ravishes as she decides to return to the arms of Geronio .

Conal Coad as Geronio, her far older sugar-daddy husband has a whale of a time imitating his late middle-aged pomposity. Coad gives a masterly demonstration of buffo style, his distinctive bass always serving the text and yet also capable of some pretty nifty very fast breathless patter, quite G & S in style. The duet for Geronio and the Turk, for example , where the latter tries to haggle unsuccessfully to buy the former’s wife, is delightful and leads to a comic duel with lots of sight gags incorporating each protagonist’s national drinks , ice on delicate areas , lemons as bitter hand weapons, and a soda syphon that ends up all over Prosdocimo.

As I overheard another audience member say at the end ‘very silly, but absolutely wonderful ‘ Hear hear. Book now, if you haven’t already, before it sells out.  Opera Australia have brought us this delicious gelato of a very fresh and vibrant version, – go on , treat yourself.

Running time 3 hours (approx) including an interval

Opera Australia’s The Turk in Italy, directed by Simon Phillips,  is at the Sydney Opera House various dates in rep until February 12 and then plays Arts Centre Melbourne, May 1-13.

LA BOHEME

LA BOHEME2

What a fabulous way to start off 2014 with this magnificent revival of Gale Edwards’s version of LA BOHEME, originally seen in 2011.

Lush, lyrical and romantic, passionately performed  by cast and orchestra it feels as fresh as if it was a world premiere .Musically the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under the enthusiastic ,very energetic leadership of Andrea Licata, was superb, giving a dazzling rendition of Puccini’s much loved score .

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LES VEPRES SICILIENNES

The grandeur of Verdi's great Opera
The grandeur of Verdi’s great Opera

Death or liberty!

As big as ‘Ben Hur’ or ‘Les Miserables’ , huge , sprawling ,long and epic, volcanically powerful, dramatic and passionate this is a magnificent version of this rarely seen Verdi opera , part of the Royal Opera House’s celebrations of the Verdi bicentenary and the first time the Royal Opera House has staged it .It  was the first of the two operas that Verdi was to write, with a French text, for the Paris Opéra. Composed between ‘La Traviata’ and the first version of ‘Simon Boccanegra’ it was first performed in 1855, and therefore was  after his earlier successes with “Rigoletto”, “La Traviata” and “Il Trovatore” ,and yet it points the way to later major works such as “Aida”, “Otello” and “Falstaff”. It demands a huge corps de ballet and two choruses on top of the usual soloists and a big pit orchestra – a marvellous example of the French ‘Grand opera ‘style indeed.

The orchestra is superb and the singing ravishing . Director Stefan Herheim has updated the action from the French occupation of Sicily in the 13th century, and a Sicilian revolt that massacred 3,000 French in 1282, to an opera house in 19th-century Paris.The prologue back- story is condensed into the overture and we see  de Montfort terrorise and rape one of the dancers . The introduction of setting of an opera house within an opera house allowed Herheim and the Royal Opera’s music director Antonio Pappano to cram the largest possible chorus on to the Covent Garden stage. One chorus, at main stage level, portrays the Sicilian peasants,in folk costume , while another chorus of French soldiers in wonderful uniforms and socialites in glorious posh evening gowns occupy the loge and balconies of the stage-set opera house.Fürhofer’s sets provide spectacular reflecting cross-sections of auditorium and stage, with intriguing use of mirrors and reflection their geometry ( an opera within an opera) always changing .

The story of the uprising of the Sicilians against their French oppressors is therefore developed to become something more complex and more intricately layered, both a study of the tension between the people and the military and an exploration of how artists are exploited by the society that creates them. André De Jong’s choreography blends easily with it , the dancers seeming to come from the Degas period at times ( very Giselle /La Sylphide of the romantic era ) but there are also dark hints of the evil underside of the occupation etc with the use of dancers in black tutus –  a dark ‘Swan Lake’ . The choreography is a great mix of contemporary and the style of the period. Visually there are many arresting images with hints of EA Poe’s ‘The Red Death’ with the use of masks and emphasis on skulls etc and also possibly Beardsley? And the lighting by Andres Poll is starkly dramatic at times with a Caravaggio like effect.

Another major theme of the opera is father/son relationships. The duet in Act3 between our tenor hero Henri,( deftly, excellently sung by Volle) who thinks himself to be a Sicilian of low birth but fiery, patriotic and full of anti-French fervour, and the man that a letter from his dead mother testifies is in fact his missing father – none other than Guy de Montfort, the villain of the piece , the hated commander of the French occupying forces stops the show . This gives the emotional impact that makes Verdi operas so human, especially as sung here by Hymel and Michael Volle as the French occupation chief who insists the young rebel now call him “father” in order to save the woman he loves. Volle’s brooding ‘Mon Fil ’ is superb , at times wistful and delicate , joyous and hopeful , at other times cold and proudly demanding – a highlight of the evening . Hymel , torn yet defiant as Henri is also magnificent .

Helene was terrifically sung by Helene LIanna Haroutounuian.Her black mourning dress in Act1 is superb but what a grisly, bizarre entrance with the head of her murdered brother! Her opening aria (Viens à nous, Dieu tutélaire / “Pray, O mighty God, calm with thy smile both sky and sea”), was splendid and ends with a rallying-cry (Courage!…du courage!) to the Sicilians to rebel against the occupiers .She was also inspirational in Les Jeunes Amies” (The Young Friends), which is the most famous tune from the work and here part of the joyous wedding celebrations .The duet between Helene and Henri revealing their love in Act 4 when facing death is also another highlight.

Erwin Schrott, as the rebel leader and passionate patriot Jean Procida, here shown as a limping ballet master , was magnificent .For starters his  Et toi, Palerme / “O thou Palermo, adored land …”. in Act1 is breathtaking and stops the show.  Bravo!

A long but thrilling and chilling night at the Royal Opera House. This was filmed at the Royal Opera House London November 4 2013.Running time four and a half hours (approx) including two intervals

Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes runs at selected cinemas for a few dates only

 

DON GIOVANNI

Mozart's DON GIOVANNI at the Independent Theatre. Pic Sarah Connor
Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI at the Independent Theatre. Pic Sarah Connor

It’s a great shame that there were only two performances of this excellent production of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ by Sydney Independent Opera.

Sung in English – generally a very good translation – musically and vocally under the energetic , expressive yet controlled direction of  Steven Stanke, the  show featured  marvelous playing by the rather small  but excellent orchestra and an interesting use of the delicate harpsichord during the ‘recitatives’.

It is interesting to note that this production was based on the 1777 Prague version. It was a  ‘semi staged’ theatre using the heavy proscenium arch and the rolling acoustic panels at the back as the set with swirling cloaks and small handprops, where appropriate, augmented by excellent costumes and lighting.

The sparse staging allows the audience to concentrate on the music, plot and characters. There was hot and steamy lust and passion, and the darkness, cruelty and depravity of the story was also acknowledged. The narrative is a morality story cloaked in heavenly music,- all of the characters are damaged in some way , and Don Giovanni  ends up being dragged down to Hell  ( ‘The punishment of the libertine’).

Rakish ,debonair Don Giovanni was excellently sung  by Randall Stewart in magnificent voice in  a most impressive performance  .He is presented as a Mafia Don with guns , knives etc  and in a very expensive looking suit and waistcoat . His seductive aria /duet ‘Là ci darem la mano’ or here in English ‘There will my arms enfold you’ with Zerlina was lyrical and melting .No wonder she was almost swooning!

We first see Donna Anna (Qestra Mulqueeny ) in a pink shirt  making wild passionate love to Don Giovanni and then oddly smiling as her father is killed, –is this a Surrealist Brechtian nightmare? Mulqueeny is then later revealed as an ultra-elegant, almost Valkyrie, with blond upswept hair and stunning black dresses , with a very strong voice, particularly in her showy arias .

As naughty , saucy , downtrodden  yet stylishly dressed , cynical Leporello, driven to distraction by his master’s bedhopping  hijinks  and lack of concern, Paul Smith was excellent .His ‘catalogue aria’ in Act1 that cruelly informs Donna Elvira of the overwhelming number of his master’s conquests was excellent .

Donna Elvira (Salina Bussien ), passionately obsessed and in love with Don Giovanni, is presented as tall, imposing  ,pale and in Gothicky  black with the initials DG tattooed on her breast as revealed  by the slit in her costume.  Bussien is a marvellous,very strong actress who gave a terrific performance.

As the Commendatore Iain Fisher gave a tremendous, chilling performance particularly in the terrifying denouement of the second act that sent chills down the spine. Bravo.

Zerlina and Masetto , the young  bride and groom whose relationship and wedding day Don Giovanni almost destroys  ,were wonderfully played and sung by Maia Andrews and Joshua Salter . Zerlina’s  ‘Batti  batti or as here in English ‘beat me beat me ‘ stopped the show .

A most enjoyable production that was quite dramatic and seductive.   Running time 2hours 45mins (approx) including one interval

DON GIOVANNI, by the Sydney Independent Opera, had two performances – 1 & 3 November 2013- at the Independent Theatre

 

 

TURANDOT at Covent Garden

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‘Colour, light and lavish fabrics dazzle the eye’ in a scene
from Turandot at the Royal Opera House

This was the first time I had attended a broadcast performance of an opera in a cinema. I was not sure what to expect as I am a regular opera-goer and lover of the art form. What I love about opera is that it is an integrated art form which incorporates music, theatre, dance etc.

Happy to say that there was the same mix of people looking forward to an evening that would be enjoyable on many levels as you get at the actual opera.

This Royal Opera production is sumptuous – on a scale that Opera Australia can rarely achieve, not just because of the small size of the Sydney Opera House’s Opera Theatre and orchestra pit, but also the sponsorship required to stage a multi-million dollar production like this one!

As you would expect from the Royal Opera, the singers were fabulous and the production pretty well perfect. Naturally, everyone was waiting for the Nessum Dorma aria, and we were not disappointed. However, the singing, acting, dancing and stage set were all at an incredibly high level.

However, the extra bit that I really enjoyed is the one you do not get with a live performance – the back stage interviews. It was really interesting to hear the director talk about the production, the conductor talk about his approach to interpreting the music, the costume designer talk about what themes she drew on (Mediaeval Chinese in this case), and the choreographer talk about how she based the dances on Tai Chi movements.

The cinematic presentation of these performances is a different experience to that of live opera – but still incredibly moving and engaging. The ‘feel’ of the audience seemed reflected this too.

I would recommend attending one of these cinematic broadcasts of opera if you are:

a) an opera lover and cannot be in London, New York etc. to attend the live performance or want to check out different productions, hear new singers etc; or

b) You are a newcomer to opera and want to test out how you feel about the art form – at cinema prices, you can afford to do a good lot of testing!

The Royal Opera’s production of Andrei Serban’s staging of Puccini’s TURANDOT screened  from Covent Garden, London at Verona Cinema Paddington on Tuesday October 1, 2013 with further sessions on Friday October 4 at 11.30am, Saturday October 5 at 11.30am, Sunday October 6 at 12pm abd Wednesday October 9 at 11.30am.

CHO CHO

CHO CHO1000

This innovative work, inspired by Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly”, uses a mix of drama, music, puppetry and Chinese and English language to deliver a strong and emotionally poignant evening. The setting of Shanghai in the 1930’s also supported this new interpretation.

The story of Butterfly always enthrals, whether in the well-known opera (which will be performed on the Harbour next year) or in the also well known and loved musical, Miss Saigon. Having said that, the line between opera and musical theatre is a thin one, and I would have described this new work as a chamber opera myself.

The music is a beautiful mix of English and Chinese theatre/opera traditions drawing on Kurt Weill, early 20th century jazz and old and modern Chinese theatre/opera music. There was also the use of what I suspect may be the Chinese equivalent of commedia dell’arte stock characters in the aunty and ‘marriage broker’.

I was not sure about the use of puppetry until the wedding night scene, when it was most incredibly effective in demonstrating the effective dismemberment of Butterfly’s soul.

This is a tightly woven work and draws the audience in intensely. In fact, I found the interval distracting and disruptive and would have preferred it delivered as a one-act production.

The star of the show would have to be Wang Zheng as Cho Cho, with her operatic credentials clearly on display not only in her beautiful singing but also her incredible stage presence, even when being the ‘voice’ of her puppet character in the flashback scenes.

I was also impressed with Du He as the aunty, whose beautiful and mellow voice had a few moments to shine when not in strong comic character. David Whitney as Sharpless was also memorable, playing the role of the lost ex-pat very effectively. Scott Irwin as Pinkerton was very believable. I must confess that I never see this plot in any form without being aware that in many parts of the world this situation is still occurring, which underlines the tragedy for me.

A special mention goes to the puppeteer who played the roles of Cho Cho’s child and the young Cho Cho. His capacity to efface himself, so that you saw and responded only to the puppet character and its story, was phenomenal!

I would recommend this show to all, but do sit at least three rows back so that you can read the surtitles.

The National Theatre of China and PlayKing’s production of the Sydney season of their award winning Chinese-Australian production Cho Cho, is playing six performances at The Concourse Theatre, Chatswood from September 24-28 and is then touring to Melbourne, playing the Arts Centre Melbourne from 2-6 October.