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08 January, 2018

Merry Widow at Sydney Opera House ... or is it the West Wing?

The Merry Widow – second ‘opening’ night 2 Jan 2018. 
Dear Reader,
Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow is rightly a classic of the musical stage which requires a soprano of the greatest talents in both acting and voice.  Gladys Moncrieff, June Bronhill and Joan Sutherland were Australians who mastered the role of Hannah Glawari (called Sonia in some English productions).  Danielle de Niese also has what it takes but the microphone, which could have been used as subtle enhancement, was over amplified and unpleasantly unnatural.  Ms de Niese dances superbly and is an outstanding personality on stage.  Her partner is Alexander Lewis, star of opera and musical and son of popular Australia baritone Michael Lewis and mezzo-soprano Patricia Price.   He also sings and acts well as the distant and reticent lover Danilo.  Mr John Longmuir has a substantial tenor voice but he is hardly the dashing figure required of Camille de Rosillon.  Furthermore, the amplification distorted his extraordinary high range so we will never know what he really sounded like. 
Despite handsome sets and costumes, I could not recommend this production.  Our national ‘opera’ company has sunk to new depths, pushed along by a drive away from opera in favour of popular musicals for weeks on end.  They mix opera singers with stars of musical theatre, a very difficult task considering the different training and talents involved.  This immortal operetta, performed by opera singers in a relatively small theatre (1500 seats) with sub-titles, needs no amplification.  But it cannot be sung every night without the use of obvious, imperfect and distorting amplification.  It is a sad irony that in the first production using the new staging and orchestra pit acoustic improvements we are blasted with loud speakers, upsetting the fine balance needed in an opera theatre.  We go to the opera to hear natural voices.  The orchestra sounded the same as usual to me but was sometimes overshadowed by the amplified voices.  The Viennese tunes seemed unstoppable and Maestro Vanessa Scammell kept a traditional pace. 
Some may like the new Australian translation with its updated details, coarse and sexually explicit references.  On many occasions I noted corny and awkward turns of phrase which replaced the charming poetry of the traditional old English translations.  An exception might be the horsey song from Hanna Glawari’s youth which was certainly an improvement on the ‘original’.  Mr Fleming is obviously a gifted poet but it was as if he had done this enormous job in a hurry.  I do not know the original German or Hungarian but the spoken dialogue largely came across as unnatural and unfunny.  I recall one point at which lovers were supposedly ‘embalmed in sweet perfume’ … were they corpses?  Did the company avoid some copyright fees by using a new Australian translation?  Or did it cost more? 
There were a number of other changes to the work if I’m not mistaken.  Lehar’s overture was omitted (it was written after the opening and is often left out).  The Grisettes de Paris are normally led by a contralto ‘Madam’ called ZoZo but here the Widow herself danced with the Maxim girls.  Was this money saving again?  It did seem incongruous. 
Having seen ‘Hello Dolly’ recently in New York I know just how split-second timing, a professional Broadway cast, balanced amplification from orchestra, soloists and chorus can yield a tight and satisfying work.  I have never seen so many smiling faces as in the intermission in the Shubert Theater at Times Square.  I wish I could say the same about the Sydney audience in Lehar’s Merry Widow. 
Over many years during January this ‘opera’ company has produced three or four high quality grand operas, indirectly contributing to the Festival of Sydney.  This year there will be 30 performances of The Merry Widow, making a mockery of the new-found abilities of the opera hall’s mechanical equipment to rapidly change sets from one opera to another following six months of extensive renovations. 
Are there parallels with the current White House?  Decades of tradition have been thrown out in favour of an unproven change in direction.  The fundamental constitution (Mission Statement) of the organisation has been flouted until moves to change it to allow the ‘opera’ company to perform virtually anything.  Pantomimes?  Cabarets?  High masses?  Perhaps someone should write a book about it. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
PS – I was bowled over by magnificent performance of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea at Pinchgut Opera in November – twice the quality at half the price!  Nero’s court was replaced by tattooed Brooklyn thugs – ‘Render unto Caesar …’. 

07 January, 2018

Render unto Caesar .... Poppea at Wynyard in Sydney CBD

L’incoronazione di Poppea – Monteverdi (1642)
Pinchgut Opera – Sydney Recital Hall, Wynyard. 
Dear Colleagues,
This was yet another stylish and witty outing of an operatic rarity by this innovative and daring opera company.  Set in a world of tattooed Brooklyn thugs, big-boss Nero finally gets rid of his legal lady in favour of Rome’s popular paramour, Poppea.  In the process we meet her other admirers and rivals. 
The singers were all excellent while the orchestra was populated with ancient instruments and young musicians who knew how to use them.  It was cute to see a family first with Seneca played by excellent baritone David Greco while the first violin was his grinning brother Matthew Greco. 
The opera starts with a hopeless suitor of Poppea, waiting for her to appear at her window. 
The second half opens with a cocaine fuelled orgy, imperial blow job and all. 
The City Recital Hall is a very agreeable venue in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. 
For more details, get your own subscription … it will be far better value than the national opera company. 
Brief notes from Andrew Byrne ..

10 June, 2017

Further notes on the 50th Anniversary Metropolitan Opera Gala 7th May 2017.

There were 28 discrete pieces (taking Boheme Act I as three, Dmitry one, overture one, Aida Triumphal March as one, etc.  [see below for my notes on the night]
The seats cost either $1966 or $950 with standing room $50 on the day.   And there were sporadic single seats available on the internet Met site in the days leading up to the event.  The marketing therefore was near perfect as a fund raiser as well as a celebration for those prepared to take a financial hit (and most was tax-deductible for US residents). 
I note it is actually 51 years since the current opera house’s first performance (see Wiki page documenting first performance (La Fanciulla del West) for students was 11th April 1966 with formal opening with Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra on 16 September 1966 which is 50 years ago last September.  But hell, any time is a good time for a party, so party they/we did.  It may have been the finest line-up of opera talent in a very long time.
Conspicuous by their absence were: Jonas Kaufmann (long booked for Cavaradossi in Vienna); Villazon (no explanation); Florez (doctor’s certificate); Mr Furlanetto (?).
These are the names who were advertised to be singing on the night: Piotr Beczała, Ben Bliss, Stephanie Blythe, Javier Camarena, Diana Damrau, David Daniels, Joyce DiDonato, Plácido Domingo, Michael Fabiano, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Flórez, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Elīna Garanča, Susan Graham, Vittorio Grigolo, Mariusz Kwiecien, Isabel Leonard, Željko Lučić, Amanda Majeski (??), Angela Meade, James Morris, Anna Netrebko, Kristine Opolais, Eric Owens, René Pape, Matthew Polenzani, Rolando Villazón, Michael Volle, Pretty Yende and Sonya Yoncheva.  But we need to add the surprise of the night: Dmitry Hvorotovsky. 
Despite high ticket prices and few 'complimentary' seats (eg. Richard Bonynge and a few other first season participants) this should have been one of the most opera-savvy audiences imaginable.  Nevertheless, inexplicably there was still premature applause in the middle of Lady Macbeth’s first act scena with Anna Netrebko as well as in La Traviata Act I finale with Ms Damrau (and Mr Polenzani off-stage – who BTW omitted the high option in his one-liners). 
Although there were no obvious cameras in the hall to my surprise the Met released the clips below on YouTube a few days after the event.  These, I would estimate, comprise no more than 25% of the concert for all to enjoy.  None was the full item and some ended abruptly (such as 'Nemico della patria').  It is a mystery to me why the concert was not filmed on HD video for future use, not to mention for historical purposes.  This was like 30 singing lessons.  I have since heard from an insider that a documentary was made about the entire process leading up to this gigantic concert.  I was keen to know who got the main dressing-room(s)! 

Comments by Andrew Byrne, Sydney drug doctor. 

Below are some links I found on searching YouTube:
Si, mi chiamano Mimi (Sonya Yoncheva):
O soave fanciulla (Calleja; Yoncheva):
Quando le sere al placido (Piotr Beczala):
Cortigiani vil razza dannata (Hvorostovsky):
Qual voluttà trascorrere (Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, Günther Groissböck)
Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix (Elīna Garanča):
Bel raggio lusinghier (Joyce DiDonato):
Aida triumphal march (Gala Finale with Latonia Moore; Dolores Zajick and many more):
Met Gala curtain calls (one by one then grand finale with conductors and tutti:
Nemico della patria.   (just audio, no video from NPR)

13 May, 2017

Andrew Byrne's take on Met Gala - "and no-one's anybody!"

Sensational Met Opera 50 Year Anniversary concert.  6pm Sunday 7th May 2017
Dear Readers, 
There was electricity in the air before this night of nights – some of the singers were still in the foyers before the concert, mingling with patrons, donors and invited guests.  There was a red carpet and photographers.  The program was secret but 33 of the Met’s named singers would be giving their own, along with the chorus, orchestra and three conductors for the home crowd in Manhattan.  There were lots of tuxedoes and women’s fashions were very much on show. 
Having announced her retirement from the opera stage, Renee Fleming would have to be the sentimental favourite while old-timers’ prizes went to James Morris and Placido Domingo.  Morris sang the Grand Inquisitor as well as Ramfis in the Triumphal March.  There was no need for any allowances for age as both men held their own with others half their age.  I wondered that Charles Anthony was not there.  
The carefully chosen operatic excerpts were interspersed with brief interviews and old newsreels related to the Lincoln Center.  In B&W footage we saw President Eisenhower turn the first sod for construction; Leonard Bernstein conducted an open-air ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus on the building site; we heard a recent interview with 90 year old Leontyne Price whose regal photograph as Cleopatra’s adorns Met programs during May.  We learned how an accidental paint spill on the foyer's plans indirectly caused the design for the unique ‘galaxy’ light fittings, contrary to the wishes of Rudolf Bing and management who had wanted traditional chandeliers.  In another clip Mr Chagall asked for his murals to be lowered (!).  Too late!! 
The stage setting for each item was a re-creation using projections onto moving curtains, scrims and giant flats sliding in from the wings.  The manner by which this was done was like rapid painting with an invisible brush causing columns, walls, arches, wall-paper, etc to appear before our eyes - each time to finally reveal a familiar Met scena.  Most impressive for me was the classic Act I Boheme attic garret, doors, balcony, chimneys, roofs of Paris, etc, all a projected illusion apart from a small raised platform, student table and two chairs from which Ms Yoncheva and Mr Calleja performed.  It was trompe l’oeil after a fashion.  Some settings even got their own applause such as for Tosca (interiors of Palazzo Farnese), Aida (Nile colossi, etc) and Boris Godunov (gilt arched chambers).  There were representations of many Met production scenes for the evening, put together brilliantly by Julian Crouch.  Costumes were either original from the production or tasteful gowns, etc. 
In the middle of the second half there was a projected bio of James Levine from his student years right through his very long association with The Metropolitan Opera.  Then the spotlights moved to the podium where Maestro himself appeared in his chair, waving to an adoring crowd.  “Jimmy” then conducted the remainder of the concert. 
I mention the evening’s wonderful selections in no particular order … each item could have been a perfect music lesson.  Inevitably there were some crowd-pleasers: Un bel di (Anna Netrebko); E lucevan le stelle (Vittorio Grigolo); Vissi d'arte (Kristine Opelais); Sempre libera (Diana Damrau); Che gelida manina, Mi chiamano Mimi, O suave fanciulla, (Joseph Calleja, Sonya Yoncheva). 
Mozart: Papagano's aria (Michael Volle); Porgi amor (Renee Fleming); Count's Aria Nozze di Figaro (Volle);
And from left field: Overture from West Side Story (started proceedings); Chorus from Antony and Cleopatra (Samuel Barber’s opera was commissioned to open the Met); Bess, you is my woman now (Eric Owens, Pretty Yende); The Tempest (by Ades) love scene (Isobel Leonard, Ben Bliss with Dwayne Croft); Julius Caesar 'Sempre piangero' (David Daniels, Stephanie Blythe). 
For the serious consumer: Nemico della patria (Domingo – the French election result had just been announced); Iago's credo (Zeljko Lucic); Leve-toi soleil (Grigolo standing in for Florez); Mon coeur s'ouvre (Elena Garanca as Dalila); Guests' Entrance, Tannhauser (with trumpets on stage); Quando le sere al placido (Piotr Beczala); Don Carlo: Grand Inquisitor's scene with Phillip V (Groissbock / Morris).  
For the connoisseur: Boris's Mad Scene (Rene Pape); Troyens duet (Susan Graham, Matthew Polenzani); Thais duet with Fleming and Domingo; Charlotte’s aria from Werther (DiDonato).  
For the Guinness record book: Bel raggio lusinghier (Joyce DiDonato); Ah mes amis (Javier Camarena) with 9 high C’s!  All pitch perfect, alternating staccato and sustained – and all with ease and a Mexican smile!!  Lady Macbeth’s scene, Act I (Netrebko in amazing form). 
Just for fun: Don Pasquale duet (Pretty Yende, Mariusz Kwiecien); Triumphal March, Aida with full chorus (but no final 'Mexican' E flat as we heard on Sydney Harbour last year with the same wonderful soprano, Latonia Moore). 
About 7pm to our great surprise Mr Gelb announced that ‘a very brave Dimitry Hvorostovsky’ would sing Cortigiani vil razza – which he did, brilliantly.  The popular baritone received a standing ovation even before he opened his mouth – still recovering after brain surgery.  He seemed delighted with the reception, even shedding a tear as did many in the audience I suspect.  I noted many Russian accents in the foyers during the single intermission. 
Just after the Thais excerpt the orchestra started playing a violin obligato which I thought momentarily to be the Meditation.  It was actually the final scene of I Lombardi in which the violin features as a solo instrument just as the ‘cello does in I Masnadieri.  It is hard to know if Verdi was simply showing off his orchestral skills or showcasing a particular instrumentalist, or both.  Yet in this scene the melding of the strings, vocal and dramatic lines indeed shows his unique genius and was highly appropriate to show it off again.  Like numerous items, it heralds the newly announced season for 2017/8.  Here we heard Michael Fabiano, Angela Mead and Gunther Groissbock sing the trio.  The fiddle was played by David Chan with great virtuosity, showing off the most difficult manoeuvres of that instrument.  I was sorry Mr Fabiano did not sing La mia letizia infondere from Act I … this was one of Pavarotti’s favourite show pieces.  I heard Luciano Pavarotti, Lauren Flanagan and Samuel Ramey in this scene on this stage many years ago, reminding me that I have been attending this house for half of its life (since 1992). 
The quality of the singing goes without saying.  Each singer put their heart and soul into each piece and adrenalin levels were high, despite most performing familiar pieces.  Just as people were starting to seriously look at their watches near 11pm we had the selection from Aida and it was all over, barring the huge curtain calls which were also very emotional.  I pinched myself yet again.  What can one say?!  “Thank you”, say I. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

Highlights from the Met in New York and early cherry blossoms!

Opera notes from New York – April/May 2017
A visit to the New York Met Opera is always a great pleasure as the season winds down until mid-May when the ballet season begins.  Pre-booking seats enabled us to see the wonderful Sonja Frisell Aida, Rigoletto set in a casino, Flying Dutchman, Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni and Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. 
How to pick a favourite with so many stars, young and old in each of these high quality productions at the Met? 
The sentimental favourite must be Renee Fleming who is doing her last Marschallin (and possibly her last opera) in a new Rosenkavalier production by Robert Carsen, sets by Paul Steinberg, updated to 1911 Vienna.  This was one of the most profound and enjoyable operas I have attended … and it was the first time the opera really ‘clicked’ for me.  It is an amusing epic romance from teenage flirtations to deviant adult mores and then painful but necessary separations to allow new ‘normal’ liaisons.  There were elegant conventions broken as well as avuncular buffoonery.  Matthew Polenzani sang the Italian tenor to a tee (as Pavarotti did 45 years ago in the previous production’s premiere).  Elena Garanca not only sings brilliantly but plays her gender-bender role with boyish charm as well as feigned feminine awkwardness.  Sofie is played by Erin Morley with great aplomb.  Baron Ochs was played by Günther Groissböck and the opera conducted by Sebastian Weigle. 
Anna Netrebko is Tatiana to Peter Mattei’s Eugene Onegin.  Dmitry Hvorotovsky is still getting over brain surgery.  Alexie Dolgov sang a most satisfactory Lensky. 
Don Giovanni had a dream cast headed by Mariusz Kwecien and Erwin Schott, conducted by Placido Domingo.  Angela Mead sang Donna Anna who has some amazing vocal fireworks towards the end.  Matthew Polenzani was a great Don Ottavio, lily-livered though he is in the story.  Both Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro were beautifully sung. 
A magnificent Flying Dutchman is conducted by the new Met musical director French Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin who seems extremely popular with audience and performers alike.  Aptly named Ms Amber Wagner sang Senta and is the dramatic soprano to watch – with a major presence and penetrating voice and crystal (not quite the right word) top notes.  Franz-Josef Selig was a fine Daland and Michael Volle sang the title role, much of it standing on mid-air ship's gantry.  Ben Bliss was an excellent steersman.  AJ Glueckert was Erik, equally good.  A fair review would take pages considering all the detail of this giant production, evocative of craggy coastlines and misty outlines in snow.  Most effective perhaps was the Ducthman’s crew’s awakening near the end.  Eerie and spooky souls like ghosts in vast contrast to the raucous celebration of the Norse townsfolk on the docks. 
Joseph Calleja as the Duke of Mantua in the 'casino' Rigoletto was in extremely good vocal and dramatic form.  Mr Lucic as jester was great 'in parts' while Miss Peretyatko’s voice might be a bit too light for Gilda.  This up-dated, fluorescent Rigoletto uses every trick imaginable in the gamblers' cabaret paradise including Playboy Bunny Girls, wheel-of-fortune, roulette, lap dancers, mobile cocktail bar, cards, poker machines and … just when you thought you had seen everything, some rehearsed dandies solemnly parade in an ornate Egyptian sarcophagus which suddenly reveals a female stripper, very much alive!   The intruders to the first act party, Count Monterone and side-kicks, were here turbaned Arabs, very annoyed about gambling and drinking going on next door to their harem (plus having the daughter raced off by the sleazy casino owner).  They got their comeuppance in the next act by being shot at point-blank range by in-house security, only a slight deviation from the original. 
Alfano was a very serious composer who wrote in several very different styles.  His ending of Turandot is well known and now his Cyrano de Bergerac is being performed after Domingo first sang it at the Met 12 years ago.   To my mind it is one of the great vocal and dramatic feats for the tenor to compare with Siegfried or Siegmund.  And Roberto Alagna does a stentorian job of this declamatory and dramatic work opposite Roxanne of Jennifer Rowley.  The Met production is a major undertaking, starting in a staged theatre and moving to a balcony street scene followed by a battle field, then a monastery.  Bravo the wizardry of the Met stage hands. 
So who was the star of the month? Well, I have to say I derived vast pleasure from the wonderful Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan who excelled in his three roles: Sparafucile, Gremin and Commendatore.  I have never heard such a long, low bass note as the Mantuan (Burgundian) hired gun repeating his own name down the stave: ‘Sparafucile!’ as Rigoletto sings ‘Va, va, va, va’.  And Gremin’s aria was exceedingly moving and dignified while Onegin looks on in horror.  Don Giovanni’s first victim’s father also sings from the dead, using two voices from the one larynx.  Fantastic feats and Met would be wise to sign up this man for life (and maybe they have). 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
More about Hello Dolly with Bette Midler and 50 year Met concert later. 

23 February, 2017

Nazi period Tosca revival triumph of the voice and drama.

Tosca – Sydney Opera House – Friday 17th Feb 2017
For the first time I can recall the national company has put on an opera with four imported artists of international calibre.  And it shows.  This is a stunning outing of the John Bell Tosca set in Nazi occupied Rome, swastikas, straight-arm salutes, Hitler youth and all.  It is dramatically intact and intense.  But most importantly, we are bathed in a tsunami of vocalism from start to finish. 
Richard Anderson as Angelotti started proceedings with his booming bass, followed by Luke Gabbedy as the adenoidal Sacristan.  Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta and Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai then gave us a believable and at times funny lovers scene followed by the stentorian Te Deum with veteran Italian baritone Lucio Gallo and chorus almost raising the roof.  This scene with its gradual crescendo and rhythmic beat was so penetrating that I hummed it for days. 
The three main roles showed that they were star material in their own ways.  Most impressive was after a fine rendition of Tosca’s prayer Vissi d’arte the final note on the simple word “cosi”.  This was taken beyond the score to a fine diminuendo and then ultimately a plosive bleat with devastating effect.  It makes one appreciate that Ms Arteta is doing something novel for her money.  Just singing the notes for Cavaradossi is enough to earn his fee … yet Mr Ilincai did more than that, looking the part and acting well.  Signore Gallo had what it takes, looking more like a gentleman than a rapist, but that’s the part he plays in Rome of the day. 
Grand opera is like international sport and without top stars it cannot survive with seats costing over $300 each.  Like the Williams sisters, Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Michael Phelps, these exemplary singers have role models in their field.  The national company seems to have finally realised this and we are now hearing top class singers again. 
Mr Badea (the fourth imported artist) kept up the pace with a huge ovation before act 3 for his orchestra.  The chorus, comprimario singers and boy soprano were all also excellent. 
I make a point of sitting further back than most reviewers, about half way to the rear of the hall.  On this occasion even patrons in the most distant seats would not have missed one note, such was the sheer power of the singing.  Unlike many of this company’s opera reprises this is certainly worth a return visit. 
BTW, Nabucco live from the Met was finally shown in Australian cinemas last weekend and was a triumph and a pleasure.  Placido Domingo is near 80 years of age yet is able to portray every emotion and sing the baritone socks off the weakened Babylonian king.  Liudmyla Monastyrska played Abigaille (the “soprano-killer” role) while Dimtry Belosselskiy sang a forceful Rabbi-in-charge.  The staging by John Napier and Elijah Moshinsky is simply brilliant. 
This is the final production before the opera theatre closes for major renovations.  The "season" now goes into 'homeless' mode with various venues, concert performances but still some phenomenal repertoire.  Later in the year we look forward to Thais, Verdi's Manzoni Requiem, Parsifal and Madama Butterfly (Capitol).  
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

14 February, 2017

A new star appears in Sydney ... Ermonela Jaho becomes Violetta.

La Traviata – Sydney Opera House – Friday 3rd February 2017.
This re-run of the very fine Moshinsky production of La Traviata included Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Violetta.  The company's web site quotes The Economist as saying she is the world's “most acclaimed soprano”, a ridiculous thing to write and even more ridiculous to quote.  But it did make me rather look forward more than usual to a Sydney Opera opening of this over-exposed warhorse of the Sydney operatic stage. 
Like the role of Norma, Violetta requires every quality a soprano can harbour.  And Ms Jaho showed in the first act that she has the requisite coloratura and bravura … but better was to come.  Her nuanced dramatic vocals in Acts 2 and 3 were little short of phenomenal and she received big ovations.  She is a fine actress, taking some small but appropriate liberties with the tempi, clearly evoking every sentiment of the intense drama.  Her voice has a slightly plum-in-mouth quality at times and at the start she almost sounded like a full-voiced mezzo-soprano.  She had slightly imperfect pitch on some high notes to my ear, a small criticism.  Yet she handled an exciting high E flat to end her Act I cadenza and the ‘fire-in-the-fowl-house’ tessitura leading up to it.  And later duets Dite alla giovine and Parigi o Cara were splendid as especially was her Addio del passato and its weakening pulse.  Not since Sutherland's days have we heard such subtle and sublime strains in this great role. 
Her paramour Alfredo was played by competent Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung.  He looked the part and took most of the difficult options.  A pleasant if slightly ‘dry’ voice he was singing with two world class artists, including Jose Carbo who sang and acted superbly as Papa Germont.  His Di Provenza was superlative, followed by the much maligned but to my taste brilliant cabaletta.  We are fortunate that Mr Carbo has chosen to stay in Australia.  With his talents he could sing anywhere. 
The conducting of Maestro Palumbo was the exact opposite of Simone Young from when this production was new about 15 years ago.  He kept all the orchestral parts low-key, low contrast and without the pauses others might use.  So it was very much a symphonic continuo which did not draw attention to the pit.  During some of the soprano solos in acts 2 and 3 maestro seemed to make major allowances for the singer, each of which paid off artistically.  Ms Young insisted on the entire score as written by Verdi, including two verses of Ah fors'e lui. 
The other solo parts were all well sung and the chorus was highly schooled vocally and dramatically. 
It is hard to absolve the company for their ludicrous decision to perform the Polish opera King Roger in their mainstream season.  This is a connoisseur’s piece which has had numerous single outings in the last 90 years but has never gained traction with regular audiences.  I found the story to be superficial and the poetry banal and empty.  Melodies are hard to find and repetitive rhythmic beats are somehow reminiscent of Satyagraha by Glass.  Neither is my cup of operatic Earl Grey … but each to their own!  As for the brilliant Covent Garden co-production, wasted in my view on King Roger … the opening lighting of a massive sculpted head is simply brilliant.  I would use the set for an opera on Freud and psychoanalysis.  Any takers? 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

15 January, 2017

Four nights running of La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House.

La Boheme – Puccini – Sydney Opera House.  Thursday 5th January 2017.
This was an auspicious debut for accomplished Australian soprano Greta Bradman who sang the role of Mimi with skill, power and finesse.  She played a most credible lover, bon vivant and, finally the consumptive.  Her voice has a very pleasing timbre with volume to spare, tasteful diminuendos and occasionally a slightly metallic quality in the high range. 
Like most of the decisions of the national company recently it seemed a little odd to cast Ms Bradman as Mimi, yet she acquitted herself with aplomb and professionalism.  She could sing the Queen of Night, Bellini heroines, Handel characters or Rusalka since her range and capabilities are wide.  Bradman was second cast after the gala opening with Italian Mariangela Sicilia who also sang creditably the previous night (yes, I went twice – and I have a day job).  Originally it was Nicole Car billed to sing opening night but a search now places her as being in Montreal (I was told she is expecting a baby - congrats!). 

Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung sang Rodolfo with strength and accuracy (a countryman had sung the role on opening night).  His high notes rang with an even clarity and excitement.  Australian audiences are used to the optional high C at the end of Act I and this tenor did not disappoint.  When singing together Chung and Bradman were splendid, almost reminiscent of the recording of Caruso and Melba.  I had goose bumps numerous times, a good measure of this person’s satisfaction.  Taryn Fiebig sang Musetta’s fiery role well but I was intrigued that Christopher Tonkin as Marcello seemed under-powered and reticent on opening night yet opened up and sang brilliantly on the second.  Perhaps he was daunted, as anyone would, at singing a major role four nights running, something no professional opera company should ask an opera singer to do (his role was not paired). 
The production by Gale Edwards and Brian Thomson was said to be set in Germany, rather odd for an opera clearly set in Paris.  Yet there seemed nothing particularly German about the setting although it deviated from the librettists rather detailed instructions but was an enjoyable and original variation.  The original change was that Marcello was not simply painting a canvas of the parting of the Red Sea (the opening lines of the opera).  He was painting the entire inside of a huge octagonal barn which we see in preparation in Act 1 then in magnificent biblical panorama in Act IV.  The English translations take many liberties, seemingly in an effort to be over-funny and/or raunchy.  It is totally unnecessary as the original, faithfully translated, is sheer brilliance.  The Café Momus scene contained a coup-de-theatre with velveted opera boxes suddenly rotating out of the walls, revealing a mirrored audience including fops, pimps, drags and a naked lady or two. 
The chorus and orchestra under Maestro Carlo Montanaro were all excellent as usual.   I am ever mystified at the shortage of Australian conductors engaged by this company. 
This near-perfect work, like the Scottish play, has many historical quirks.  Caruso is said to have pushed a warm sausage into the hand of Melba before singing ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’.  Caruso once sang the basso ‘Coat’ aria facing away from the audience when the character playing Colline had a sudden bout of  laryngitis.  A multitude of fish, birds and animals are mentioned in the libretto which can make a good trivia question.  Whale, trout, salmon, herring, beaver, peacock, parrot, vixen, viper, horse, toad are just a few which come to mind.  The inscription on Melba’s gravestone: ‘Addio, senza rancor’ is from this opera.  Pavarotti once said that he liked to debut in every new opera house with the role of Rodolfo (a sign of his laziness on the one hand, yet his vocal perfection at performing this challenging role). 
Another bonus of the harbourside venue are the evening departure of huge ocean liners just before curtain time (Celebrity Solstice, Nordaam, Voyager of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas this week).  But the internal tragedy is the demise of our long running repertory company, replaced with the new ‘festival company’ under present management.  We now have a limited number of staged performances of mostly popular and over-exposed operas in place of ~15 high quality operas to choose from each year previously.  And now we have a government report proving what is obvious to any opera goer, pointing out that Opera Australia has effectively double-dipped by taking funds for opera while producing a large proportion of musicals which are commercially viable, unlike grand opera which is the purpose of an opera company and the government grants it receives.  See some extracts below for those who might be interested in the gory detail. 
Comments by Andrew Byrne .. Andrew's blog
The National Opera Review – Final Report dated 2016 and signed by Helen Nugent, Andrew McKinnon, Kathryn Fagg and Moffatt Oxenbould. 
Extract from Executive Summary (p i-viii):
While the Review supports [each company having] … its own artistic and strategic direction … it also recommends … that the companies should be penalised if agreed funded activities are not delivered (Recommendations 5.6 to 5.9).
The Review also recommends that significant commercial activities, such as Opera Australia’s long-run musicals, should not be funded because there are viable independent commercial competitors in the market (Recommendations 5.10 and 5.11). This is a significant conclusion of the Review. This is not to suggest that Opera Australia should not continue to stage musicals on a purely commercial basis.
Artistic vibrancy
The number, balance and quality of mainstage productions is integral to the future of opera as an artform and the success of the companies.
It is the very lifeblood of each opera company, providing the basis for artistic engagement with audiences and the employment of artists. But, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), it has also been the financial Achilles heel of each Major Opera Company, making a growing negative financial contribution.
Opera Australia and Opera Queensland, in particular, have responded to this challenge by reducing the number of mainstage productions and/or performances they offer and, in the case of Opera Australia, by offering longer runs of frequently repeated popular mainstage operas.
The unintended consequence has been that audience numbers for mainstage opera have declined and employment opportunities for artists have significantly decreased.
The Review considers that such a situation is not sustainable. To that end, it recommends that core funding should be provided for a defined number of mainstage productions. More specifically, it is recommended that … [various specific numbers of  productions for each state and national opera companies].  
See full report for details and apologies for these incomplete and selected quotes. 

29 December, 2016

Handel’s Theodora at Wynard in Sydney.

An impressive production of Handel’s Theodora at Angel Place 6/12/16. 
I was bowled over by the whole operatic experience at Pinchgut Opera and would recommend it highly for 2017.  Despite an open stage at the City Recital Hall we saw a virtually fully staged version of this neglected gem thanks to brilliant director Lindy Hume and maestro Erin Helyard. 
The principal singers were all of the highest calibre, supported by the 'Cantillation' chorus and Pinchgut orchestra.  It is always nice when one can interact with the performers and at the Recital Hall one walks past the musicians coming into the theatre.  One could not ignore the huge contrabassoon both physically (it seemed to be about 3 metres long) as well as its booming place in the complex score of this baroque opera.  I think I noted a wooden flute too, reminding us why this brass instrument is still classified as a ‘woodwind’. 
Theodora is a simple but shocking story of early Christians in Roman Antioch during the pagan festival of Venus and Juno.  One young Roman soldier converts to Christianity for love while another becomes very sympathetic.  The staunch and unrepentant Christian is the beautiful young virgin of the title. 
And Valda Wilson sang the role superbly … with dignity and vocal aplomb, despite being condemned to work in a brothel for her baptismal crime against the Roman gods. 
We meet our protagonists initially around a large raised table, brilliantly set as a modern boardroom meeting.  Following amusing domestic preliminaries, the dignitaries are addressed by Valens, the Roman bully-in-charge, well sung by basso Andrew Collis.  The love-struck Didymis was played by Christopher Lowrey, a counter-tenor with a most pleasing voice.  I do not warm to many male sopranos (apart from David Daniels, of course) yet here was beauty, style and flair in his rendition of the fiendish vocal lines by Handel.  Soldier Septimus was English tenor Ed Lyon and Irene was played by sumptuous mezzo Caitlin Hulcup … both excellent operatic voices and actors to wit. 
The start of Act 2 was another piece of theatrical originality being a drunken bacchanal which started half way through the intermission.  As we came back into the hall the singers were already lurching around the stage one by one, bantering with orchestra members, muttering, laughing and generally making a stage-party by the time we were all seated.  The drama then took us through all the emotions as Theodora's paramour Didymis becomes her first customer, only to swap clothes and attempt escape from the brothel.  
It is telling that this venue can be so intimate and user-friendly at just half the price per ticket as Opera Australia which was concurrently engaged in a Ring series of operas in Melbourne for the very select few who can afford the time, travel and enormous ticket prices.  One has an overwhelming feeling of youth, vitality and professional enthusiasm at Pinchgut performances.  This is quite the opposite of the national opera company which has become so survival-conscious, negative and pusillanimous in almost everything it does these days.  And YES, I am very jaded that the Ring was done again in Melbourne rather than Sydney (but spare me the reasons).  However, hats off to the national company for putting Greta Bradman into La Boheme next week.  Toi, toi, toi! 
Get a brochure for Pinchgut in 2017!  And if you want to see serious international quality opera in an opera house, go to San Francisco! 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. Wishing all readers a happy and prosperous New Year for 2017. 

15 September, 2016

Sydney Cosi fan tutte. Also 2017 season balagan.

‘Cosi fan tutte’, Sydney Opera House, Thursday 11th August 2016.

I have some very complimentary words about this Mozart classic. A mostly local cast and stylish new production by David McVicar yielded a full nights Mozart/da Ponte comedy starting at 7pm. Personally I have always had problems with this masterpiece, finding it long and predictable, despite the glorious vocals entailed. Opera stories always extend credulity here and there but this opera does so from start to finish. But I know I am in a minority. Even a veteran performance in the 1980s with Zubin Mehta, Cecelia Bartoli, Lella Cuberli, Joan Rodgers, Kurt Streit, Ferruccio Furlanetto and John Tomlinson could not convert me. Even the title is sexist and would probably not pass today's political correctness censor.

It was gratifying to find a full house on this occasion in Sydney and a balanced Aussie cast of principals with orchestra and chorus up to high standards. Ms Car showed off her big, crystal soprano voice but seemed to be stumped by some of the long phrases, taking an extra breath as mezzo colleague Anna Dowsley sang through the tough tessitura on at least two occasions. American tenor David Portillo (replacing Charles Castronovo for unstated reasons) and Andrew Jones are the play-within lovers while Taryn Fiebig and Richard Anderson play Despina and Don Alfonso in the totally unbelievable plot (a magnet reverses a placebo poison - REALLY?). Conducted by Jonathan Darlington with splendid orchestra and chorus one could be transported by the music to a Neapolitan pantomime.


2017 Season Brochure released by Opera Australia in winter 2016.

This is the worst mish-mash of an 'opera' season from the supposedly national opera company that I have ever seen. While part of the reason is the closure of the opera theatre from March many other venues were available but now seem to be booked out and the company, as ever of late, is on the back foot.

The superlative operatic basso Ferruccio Furlanetto is not singing opera, but Schubert and Rachmaninov. Nothing wrong with that, but it does not augment an opera program.

Despite his cover picture in costume in the season brochure, Jonas Kaufmann is NOT singing in staged opera but in three concert performances of Parsifal, Wagner's Holy Grail opera. Yes, finally Sydney gets some Wagner. Yay! This opera is such a major sing that another couple of imports for major roles might have been appropriate in my view. Lets hope the local artists are able to rise to the occasion and create a vocally balanced evening in the Concert Hall.

But most of the season is re-runs: Madama Butterfly (Capitol Theatre, 12 performances), La Boheme (20 performances), La Traviata (22 performances), Tosca (13 performances) and Carmen on the harbour (yet again, 24 performances). No wonder so many subscribers have let their seats lapse with such wonderful operas becoming like fast food.

But there are three rarities to look forward to in King Roger, a Polish opera as well as the first outing of Two Weddings, One Bride (a compilation opera staring David Lewis, Julie Lea Goodwin and Geraldine Turner). The latter is conducted by the composer/arranger Robert Greene. Thirdly, Thaïs is to be performed in the Town Hall with Nicole Car in a single performance.

I note Emma Matthews is expected to sing Violetta on 21, 23 and 25 March or three times in five days - is that wise for such a big role?

Verdi's Manzoni Requiem on Aug 10 in the Concert Hall has an as yet unnamed soprano singing with Nikolic, Torre and Roberto Scandiuzzi conducted by Renato Palumbo. This superb work should not be missed and should perhaps have had two airings. The opera twins, Cav and Pag make up the Sydney leg (9 performances with Torre and Carbo doing death-defying double roles three nights in five!!) - and add 6 performances of ‘Aida on the Beach’ in Coolangatta and you have the whole sorry shambles of what used to be a great opera company. A subscription used to be a guarantee of the best seats and lowest prices but now the company regularly issues Promo Codes for on-line discounts as well as discounts from Fish Records.


Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

10 July, 2016

Roberto Devereux in the cinema. Donizetti at his best!

MetOpera HD Cinema broadcast of Roberto Devereux finally comes to Australia.  This matinee was performed on Saturday 16th April and beamed live to America and Europe.  Australasian audiences had to wait until the first weekend in July.  DVD not released yet. 
Sondra Radvanovsky is incomparable as Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux.  This is her third Donizetti English queen after Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda.  American tenor Matthew Polenzani sang the title role stylishly.  He cuts a dashing figure and emotes the conflicting feelings of love to anger and regret, facing death at the end with resolution - and another glorious aria.  Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is at the peak of his vocal and dramatic powers as the Duke of Nottingham.  As Sarah, his duchess, we heard Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca.  All were top class in this enormous bel canto drama directed by Sir David McVicar. 
The open stage was a formal setting with sliding façade on two levels with courtiers watching all the proceedings from the sides on two levels.  Between the Tower of London and Henry VIIIs country palace “Nonesuch” (now long levelled), scene changes were seamless.  
In the cinema one has the opportunity to see much closer than in the theatre.  This obvious observation makes for a very different experience with more details of faces, costumes, wigs, etc than even front row seats.  This benefit may also be a draw-back in some cases, showing up imperfections, most notably sweating and beard/wig lines.  It was indeed a privilege for me to be able to experience the same performance in the theatre and then in the cinema for comparison. 
Another benefit of the cinema version is that we can meet the cast in the intermission.  Deborah Voigt interviewed Ms Radvanovsky about her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth who was 69 years of age at the time of the opera.  She was known to have skin problems and a limp from hip trouble, each of which featured in a distinct tremor, thinned hair and thick white make-up.  Each of the other main 3 principals also gave some interesting commentary (and each had a few words for the folks back home in their native tongues). 
After a full blooded overture including God save the Queen the drama opens with a sad and reflective duchess pondering her loveless marriage and illicit longings for Devereux.  Elina Garanca has some ravishing music to sing both alone and in numerous duets.  The range required is extraordinary from high coloratura down to low chest voice.  She is very beautiful and acts with a natural conviction using every aspect of facial expression, body language and more. 
The story revolves around the queen refusing to charge Devereux with treason for lack of hard evidence despite parliament demanding his execution.  The queen demands he reveal any other love but hers which he denies.  Otello has its handkerchief, Tosca the fan, but this opera has a blue scarf with gold thread embroidered by the duchess for Devereux and with which he is caught when arrested on order of the parliament.  It is this scarf which also reveals her extra-marital affections to her husband who then prevents his wife delivering Devereuxs reprieve.  As with Wagner, there is a ring which causes a whole lot of trouble.  Its late delivery causes the untimely beheading of Devereux, revealed by a cannon blast, introducing the queens denouement in Ms Radvanovskys spectacular final scene. 
The other three singers all have major vocal parts as well but it is Ms Radvanovsky who has the most taxing and extensive role.  Her finales of both halves (acts 1 and 2 were merged together) are staggering displays equal to any mad scene or other soprano endurance feat in all opera to my experience.  And she acquits them with superb aplomb - high notes, low notes, legato and ornamented vocal lines. 
There were at least three numbers which were reminiscent of Lucrezia Borgia which Donizetti wrote 5 years earlier.  He wrote (or re-wrote) almost 100 operas between 1816 and 1844.  For people who like to know about high notes, Ms Radvanovsky hit a D natural for her final note of the opera.  Ms Garanca used three octaves with phenomenal effortlessness from near baritone to high soprano.  Mr Polenzani sang a sustained high D flat in his final aria.  Mr Kwiecien just sang brilliantly all night and did not have to prove himself with any A naturals, trills, etcetera. 
The huge Met orchestra was exemplary under Maestro Maurizio Benini.  And as usual the Met chorus was splendid, most of them playing the onlookers in the "play within the play" (as the commentator called it). 
This was one of the best opera performances I have seen and I consider myself lucky to have seen it twice in New York and then again here in Sydney on the big silver screen.  Indeed, there was palpable excitement in the cinema - the Sydney audience spontaneously applauded at numerous high points as well as at the end.  The curtain calls were also most moving (see below for YouTube clip of same).  
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
The next HD Live Met Opera in the series is Elektra with Nina Stemme and not to be missed by Richard Strauss fans. 
Pearlfishers duet with Polenzani and Kwiecien:
The penultimate duet is on YouTube: