In the weeks before the storm clouds
of Covid 19 gathered I was privileged to attend a series of moving cultural
events culminating in the opening night on 12th March of Attila at
the Sydney Opera House, a co-production with La Scala, Milan, conducted by
Andrea Licata. I attended with my sister and brother-in-law from Perth,
WA plus a lot of local dignitaries, pollies and other free-loaders. Broadcast
on ABC Classic FM radio: https://www.abc.net.au/classic/programs/sunday-opera/sunday-opera-verdi-attila/12083484
The sets used some ruined stone arches from antiquity joined to modern steel
girder structures. These opened and closed, just like the windows of opportunity
for peace and war between all-conquering Attila and a failing Roman
As Odabella Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan was strident and accurate for the
requirements of this stentorian role (her opening scene is my ‘desert island
piece’ and I was not disappointed – go to 14 minutes in on ABC audio if you
dare). Taras Berezhansky sang the title role with his resplendent bass
voice and elegant frame while tenor Diego Torre sang Foresto using his
magnificent spinto, perhaps the best we have heard from a resident tenor since the
days of Donald Smith. Italian baritone Simone Piazzola played Ezio the
Roman general, also not missing a beat along with Australian trained tenor
Virgilio Marino playing Uldino. All were top notch and up to the enormous
demands of the roles. I note while listening the ABC broadcast that Mr Piazzola sang his
declamatory and patriotic second act aria ending on a most exciting B flat, a
note usually reserved for tenors (1hr 28m).
A formal review of the opera could take some pages … very little to criticise
and much to praise. The cold-blooded shooting of numerous female captives
in the opening scene was a little shocking but emphasised the gall and spirit
of Odabella in addressing the King of the Huns.A great sadness that the season was curtailed after the second
performance and that so few will see this magnificent work (even the opening
was only half full). It was the Australian premiere. And we may not
see it again for a very long time.
I had seen Attila at Carnegie Hall in 2003 with Lauren Flanagan and then again
in 2010 in a wonderful production at the New York Met. On that occasion
we met some cast members backstage afterwards including bass Samuel Ramey and
conductor Marco Ameliato. Mr Ramey had sung the title role in 2003 and in
his ‘retirement’ sang the small role of Pope Leo in the Met production 7 years
later. He may be the last living singer from the ‘Golden Age’ [sic] of
Opera which included Joan Sutherland.
My pre-corona season had started 3 weeks earlier with a concert by young
singers for our NSW Wagner Society. My immediate reaction was that young
singers should not be singing Wagner. Fortunately the program was
balanced and ‘safe’ including some Weber, R. Strauss, Humperdinck, Beethoven
and Marx. There followed a fun Sydney Mardi Gras party - a sedate
gathering of young and old the night before the big parade. Then a
wonderful Selby and Friends chamber group concert called ‘A Tale of Two Cities:
St Petersburg and Vienna’. Ms Selby at the piano with clarinet, violin
and ‘cello we heard works by Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky and Arensky. The
Arensky piano trio in D minor was most novel and impressive and it appears I
have been missing this wonderful late Russian composer and will seek out more
of his works.
During this period I also celebrated my brother’s birthday in Erskineville then
my nephew’s engagement in Potts Point, a gay wedding of an old school friend
and long-time Aboriginal partner on Sydney Harbour then sadly there was the
funeral of a friend in the Southern Highlands (not Covid related). During
February my niece’s young medical student colleague was holed up on the Diamond
Princess in Japan with regular bulletins from his parents and sibs isolation on
board – portending what is now happening around the globe. And I continue
working at the medical clinic near Sydney's Central Station (where there are
very few travellers nowadays).
With regards and wishes for more strength to all readers for the difficult days
Colleagues (it’s long, so get a coffee or press delete!),
Semele by George Friderich
Handel – novel opera of great genius, unfairly overlooked.
This it to praise the joys of
Handel’s magnificent masterpiece of 1744 and to recommend the numerous
recordings and YouTube versions available to readers.
Handel changed the face of
opera, concert and choral music in a long career from Germany to Rome and then
to London where he was virtually adopted by the English and even became a
naturalised citizen. Handel was born in the same year as JS Bach,
Domenico Scarlatti and John Gay, 1685.
Handel wrote 40 operas in 30
years, most of which disappeared into obscurity until the 1950s when
enthusiasts in England and America became interested to re-create these works
using original instruments and the vocal devices and techniques of the baroque
period (excluding castrati!).
Apart from some recent praise,
unkind things have sometimes been written on this list like: ‘all his music
sounds the same: they just change the title’. However, closer listening
reveals a mature genius in melodic invention, dramatic flow and orchestral
originality. This is certainly the case with Semele. Most Handel
operas have one aria which became a memorable showpiece. Ombra mai fu
(‘Handel’s largo’ from Serse); Torami a vagheggiar (Alcina); Let the bright
Seraphim (Samson); Care selve (Atalanta); V’adoro, pullilae (Julius Caesar);
Where shall I fly? (Hercules); Lascia, ch’io pianga (Rinaldo); Dove sei, amato
Apparently some in London were
sick and tired of Italian operas. Samuel Johnson even defined opera in
his dictionary in 1755 as ‘an exotic and irrational entertainment’.
‘Exotic’ in those days meant foreign. So Handel moved with the times and
wrote Semele to an English libretto penned from the Ovid’s Metamorphoses about
the illicit liaison between Jupiter and Semele to the consternation of his wife
Juno and with the conniving of Semele’s sister Ino. The last lines of the
opera allude to the birth of Bacchus, son of Semele and Jupiter and bringer of
mirth, joy and libido.
However, when in early 1744 the
libretto was presented to Covent Garden as a raunchy piece involving sex out of
marriage, betrayal, death on stage, etc, it was determined that it could not be
staged during Lent, a season of solemn self deprivation. Brilliant
tactician as he was, Handel told the management and his publisher that Semele
was an opera “in the manner of an Oratorio”. Hence it was performed from
the concert platform in English to the delight of the public. London did
not want to miss out again on the first performance as they had with Messiah
which opened in Dublin after London found it inappropriate for a church.
Like Messiah, Semele was reportedly written in about a month, a phenomenal
feat, especially for someone who had a recent heart attack.
Messiah has become one of the
most popular choral pieces of all time (see excellent videos from Trinity
Church Wall Street). It is my view that Semele should have been as
popular, such are its enormous musical, vocal and dramatic virtues.
Semele’s time may have finally arrived as a few serious performances have been
given and mainstream opera companies are turning their attention to
Handel. YouTube provides some impressive examples (see below for some
recommended links including Cecilia Bartoli in Zurich).
Some say Semele is Handel’s
best opera. I heard Charles Mackerras spoke highly of the work and
conducted Joan Carden in the title role in Australia. Just the second act
has three of the most famous arias ever written … ‘Iris Hence Away’ for the
mezzo-soprano; ‘Sleep, why do’est thou leave me’ for the soprano and ‘Where
‘ere you walk’ for the tenor. Do many (or any?) other operas have three
immortal arias in just one act? All singing students should learn some
Handel … and often one of the above - but only when they are quite advanced in
their training since these are all major exercises in breathing, coloratura and
The soprano sings two
phenomenal pieces each of which dwarfs even the Queen of Night’s arias by
Mozart. ‘Myself I shall adore, should I persist in gazing’; ‘No, no, I'll
take no less …’. Semele could become my favourite opera (equal with
Notes and hyperbolae by Andrew
Byrne in Sydney .. (quivering at the prospect of visiting New York in 3
weeks despite Coronavirus threat). Will the Met stay open, I wonder?
I am still reeling in the
after-glow of this magnificent outing of Giordano’s masterpiece, Andrea
55 years ago a determined
impresario obtained the services of three of the world’s greatest singers to
perform Andrea Chenier in Tokyo. Happily Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco
and Aldo Protti were filmed for Japanese television and the B&W DVD is one
of my prized opera recordings. Their performances are all staggering and
the applause equally enthusiastic in this fully staged version. Now,
decades later in Sydney and Melbourne we have three great singers at their
peaks in this same opera, in concert.
We were fortunate to hear
German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and French
baritone Ludovic Tezier. Any one of these opera stars should have ensured
a full house … but to hear all three with numerous superb Australian singers,
chorus and orchestra in Utzon’s ‘wunder-barn’ yielded one of the best nights at
the opera since Sutherland and Pavarotti sang here together in 1983. No
costumes, no wigs, no sets. Just glorious vocalism as its best. The
Concert Hall performances were options in the year’s season subscription.
In fact they were a major draw-card.
shines through time and again in this wonderful opera … illuminating Luigi
Illica’s moving and tragic libretto. Chenier is a revolutionary poet and
he addresses country, love, honour, chivalry, charity, justice and punishment
to a rare dramatic perfection. Monsieur Tezier sings a stunning ‘Son
sessant’anni’ to set the scene for revolution; then his equally stentorian
‘Nemico della patria’ to ensure the opera’s unhappy ending. The tenor has
four arias in the two long acts, starting with ‘Un dì all'azzurro spazio’ Mr
Kauffman devotes enormous vocal and dramatic energy to each piece. Ms
Westbroek, who sang Sieglinde at the Met recently, sang her famous aria ‘La
Mamma morta’ which brought the house down before their final duet ‘Vicino a
Sian Sharp (Pendry), Anna
Dowsley, Ben Rasheed, Richard Anderson, Luke Gabbedy, Domenica Matthews,
Jonathan Alley, Christopher Hillier, Alexander Hargraves and Graeme Macfarlane
all sang significant roles with style and flair.
One of the unique
performances belonged to Gerard, the manor valet who first evokes the
anti-patrician sentiments, uniforms, generations of servants and service
without recognition, remuneration or choice. And looking francishly
elegant, Monsieur Tezier wore a bespoke arch-cut tuxedo in deepest green and
black which was a ‘uniform’ of sorts emphasising his designated station in
life. And he sang the demonstrative notes of this magnificent role,
almost equalling the amazing feat of Aldo Protti in the old TV recording from
Tokyo (still available on-line). While the lovers inevitably take the
lime-light at the glorious ending (Madame Guillotine notwithstanding) it is the
baritone who carries much of the dramatic weight of this unique work.
Israeli Sabra Pinchas
Steinberg conducted the Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus. He was
clearly au fait with the piece but for some reason took the start of Act II at
a ridiculously fast pace, seemingly to prove that the instruments could keep
up, which they seem to have, but few audience ears could have done so in my
view. The chorus likewise did as required to great effect, although this
is not a great choral opera.
There were shades of
modern Hong Kong in the story line, such is the revolutionary spirit there just
There are few operas in my
experience with as many spine tingling moments as Andrea Chenier and it will a
long time before the privileged Sydney audience forgets this experience.
I spoke to two patrons who were determined to re-live the performance on the
Sunday matinee following. Good luck to them! Another decided against it,
‘lest it dent the indelible impression of the prima’.
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
Sydney addiction physician.
Werther at the Sydney Opera House. Friday 22nd
The Sydney audience gave a
rare standing ovation for American tenor Michael Fabiano after four relentless
acts of this devolving tragedy. Unlike most operas, Werther has a simple
story line of unrequited love leading to suicide. And Massenet’s evocative
orchestration and vocals take us through every stage from observation,
recognition, desire, love, lust, envy, loss, anger to despair and death.
Haunting solos and dramatic duets reach incredible operatic high points in each
of four acts and this is against the banal backdrops of a family gathering,
street scene, a church anniversary and a Christmas dinner.
We last saw this opera a
decade ago with its charming and innovative production by Michael Yeargan and
Elijah Moshinsky. The clever use of indoor/outdoor settings well suits
the story which takes place in a home, garden and village square. An
initial stage coup sees an entire sheet of shimmering silk covering all on
stage, tables, chairs, bicycle, toys, fence, etc. As the prelude progresses it
was almost imperceptibly pulled away, ‘sucked’ into a hole in the middle of the
stage! All is revealed: a weird and wonderful exposé for the scena of
bright green grass, garden furniture, festooned entrance architrave, etcetera.
Charlotte was well sung by
Elena Maximova who played Olga to the Tatiana of Anna Netrebko at the
Metropolitan Opera in 2017. Young sister Sofie was ably played by Stacey
Alleaume with her several impetuous but melodious teenage interjections.
Luke Gabbedy cut a fine Albert while other supporting singers rose to the very
substantial occasion for a well balanced performance.
Werther is best known for its
Act III tenor aria Pourquoi me reveiller which Mr Fabiano sang to
perfection … as we once heard Luciano Pavarotti do likewise in this same opera
house (in concert). The connected duetto was vocally satisfying and
emotionally wrenching, preparing us for the Act IV death scene.
We first heard Michael
Fabiano here as Faust in 2015, then in Lucia in 2018. His voice may have
broadened and his technique become more nuanced and shaded, each vocal phrase
With its newly functional pit
‘enhancement’ the orchestra sounded full bodied under the baton of Maestro
Carlo Montanaro. As with the vocals, there is a particular style for
French tempo, timbre and temperament. Massenet would have been delighted
at the modern presentation of his 1892 masterpiece.
The opening night audience
will long remember being bowled over by the vocal power and intense drama
contrasted with subtlety and equipoise of Michael Fabiano’s stentorian
performance. Along with his fellow artists and bright production this is
a ‘must-see’ opera. There are seven more performances so opera lovers in
reach of Sydney should get a ticket quickly (there are plenty available
according to the company’s web site).
One does not have to travel to Sydney as the arts come to
the Southern Highlands on a regular basis. Ruddigore is one of the least
known Gilbert and Sullivan works but is a dark classic, famous for patter songs. It
originally ran in London in 1887 for 300 performances and earned Mr Gilbert
6000 pounds. I last saw it in Armidale, NSW, in 1965! The Bundanoon
Soldiers’ Hall performance on Sat 29th September was full and
frolicsome. G&S were forerunners of today’s West End and Broadway
Selby and Friends
concerts continue in Mittagong and Bowral, returning to their original location,
now fully refurbished, at Chevalier College in 2019. Every two months for
many years renowned pianist Kathryn Selby has brought three or four virtuoso
musicians for a chamber concert centring on Beethoven but featuring many others
from before and since including some contemporary works. The concerts are
always an entertainment and often an education as well, ideally timed for 5pm
on Saturday evenings. Next concert is Sat 13 October.
The Australian Haydn
Ensemble continue their performances, the latest at Kangaloon Hall on Sat 6th
October with the same program played the following day at the Sydney Opera
House, Utzon Room (Winx on the sails!). This featured an important 19th
century genre being transcriptions of full symphonic works for smaller groups
of instruments. This was the only way most people living away from the
big centres (as most did) would ever hear the great symphonies of Beethoven,
Mozart, Haydn and others. We were treated to a wonderful performance of
Beethoven’s first symphony in C by 6 string instruments plus flute. It
was brilliant, being both familiar and different at the same time.
Local born pianist Andrew Rumsey has been doing a popular
French duet program around the towns too including the Rose Room in
Burradoo.Too much on for me to get
there but it must have been fun.
I have seen the tulips in Bowral each week for the past
several and while some beds are over their peak, there are still lots to see …
and finally the double Japanese cherry is starting to flower. With some
light rain, nobody is complaining.
Lammermoor with Jessica Pratt, Michael Fabiano, Giorgio Caoduro, c. Carlo
Rigoletto with Dalibor
Jenis, Gainluca Terranova, Irina Lungu, Taras Berezhansky, c. Renato
Aida with Amber
Wagner, Elena Gabouri, Riccardo Massi, Warwick Fyfe, Roberto Scandiuzzi, c.
I feel very torn having seen three truly
magnificent opera performances while at the same time seeing further evidence
of a company on a path to self-destruction. Each year Opera Australia has contained less opera and
less Australian content under present management.There is no opera at all for three months of
the year (musicals take centre stage) and most of the main opera roles are taken
by foreign-based artists.What a sadness
that so much artistic dollar now goes offshore ... and as a result the company
no longer encourages talented young local singers with the prospect of a career
in opera in Australia.
These things aside for a moment, we were privileged to enjoy the glorious,
full blooded operas with Lucia, Rigoletto and Aida, starting the new winter
season.These include the famous Sextet,
the Quartet and Triumphal March, along with much, much more.
There were many high points …
but two stand-out performances were Jessica Pratt in the Lucia Mad Scene and
Michael Fabiano’s finale of the same opera.Both were unique demonstrations of the finest renditions of vocal drama
– each a master class.Both had done the
same roles in New York recently, but not together.Ms Pratt omits the act I cadenza which is
sensible but adds a needless if very exciting high F in the scene in her
brother’s studio.The sextet and
cabaletta with chorus are high class vocalism but the mad scene wins all the
gongs in town.Ms Pratt has everyone
spell-bound with her flights, frights and heights.The glass harmonica is replaced by the flute
in a tight and accurate orchestra under Maestro Montanaro.
A libretto I consulted omits
the wonderful Wolf Crag Scene which was sung splendidly by Messrs Caoduro and
Fabiano.The libretto also left out the
scene in act II between Lucia and Raimondo (played here very competently by
Richard Anderson).There are also some
lines after the chorus endings later in the opera which were included in this
very full and fine rendition.I wish I
could say the same of the production which was bland, grey and
uninspiring.There was no fountain!Nor even an oily doily marking the spot.
Leo Nucci had cancelled his
much anticipated Rigoletto, replaced by a very fine Dalibor Jenis from
Bratislava.The new production had also
been cancelled due to funds but was unlikely to match the standard of the
wonderful old Moshinsky / Yeargan set in Mantua’s court portrait gallery in surely
its last outing.
American soprano Amber Wagner
was a mighty Aida with one of the loudest voices I have ever heard (and big,
beautiful vocalism is what we pay
for).The pace-setting new production
uses tall LED panels in place of scenery and props.Yet the production used images more like
Iceland than Egypt.We were regaled with
huge fast moving clouds, bush fires and sea scapes, all rare in Egypt … and
there seemed no impression of Egypt’s torrid heat and blue sky.The towering structures projected were like
Maurits Escher inventions, containing multiple arches.Yet the arch was not invented until
Greco-Roman times.The head-dresses bore
little resemblance to Egypt and some looked more like Meso-American eagle gods
and Doctor Who Cybermen.Some of the hieroglyphs were real (in the tomb
scene) while others might have been a hieratic washing bill.But no matter - the voices were all splendid,
notably local Warwick Fyfe as Amonasro.His magnificent “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente” is still humming in my
ear.Ms Gabouri and Mr Massi were
excellent as Amneris and Radames.Even
the relatively small role of Ramfis was taken by top international bass Roberto
Scandiuzzi, adding to the star-studded line-up.
The technicolor panels were
moved incessantly, often for no particular dramatic reason – up down and
sideways, etc.Yet at times the set
change was dramatic and almost instantaneous.Apparently we will see more operas using such technology, as with the
Met Ring which uses narrow hinged LED panels to great effect.It was surprising to me that there were still
several short pauses in a darkened house between scenes in Aida.The company chose to have only one
intermission which in my view is an insult to composer, patrons, singers and
bar staff alike.On a practical note for
an aging audience it also causes more congestion in the toilets in the single
intermission.Another reflection of the
audience is that the matinee is so heavily booked these days.
So what is to become of the
national opera company now that it has so few resident artists and spends so
much of the year performing musicals?A
successful formula used for over 50 years has been dumped and a repertory
company has been turned into a ‘festival’ company.The present management makes no apologies as
this has been the aim for some years, only now coming to fruition.Even costumes are now made in Thailand.The MEAA cannot defend Australian artists,
wig makers, etc.My question is whether
the ‘new formula’ is sustainable.Already the opera on the harbour has had to start repeating popular
works and the great majority of theatre performances are of ‘top of the pops’
or ‘ABC’ of opera (Aida, Boheme, Carmen).When is Sydney going to hear Wagner?Will we ever hear Trittico, Huguenots, Fidelio, Gioconda, Nabucco or
I for one am grateful that we
still have an opera company at all.But
it cannot claim to be a truly Australian
opera company any longer and may not qualify for government subsidy which would
be a disaster considering already high ticket prices up to $350 per seat.
I will be keeping my
subscription for the time being and remain a supporter if a critical one.
Cheers to all opera lovers
(and thanks for the patience of the normal people out there).
Lucia di Lammermoor.Metropolitan Opera Tues 11th and
15th April 2018
It is my view that these
performances are a milestone in the performance history of this opera.And I don't just say that because I am an
Australian ... Ms Pratt was born in England and came to Australia aged 11.In the past decade she has sung in many
European opera houses before being engaged by The Met as second of three Lucias
after Olga Peretyatko and before Pretty Yende.Pratt has sung only rarely down-under but is finally engaged to sing
this very role with the national company later this year.I would advise everyone to try for a ticket
as they will not be disappointed on the Met performances.
There was a strong cast in a
dark but effective production by Mary Zimmerman.The production was up-dated to the 1920s
which would have been fine but for two rather stupid and distracting ‘side
shows’ starting with the entire sextet being a set-up for a wedding photograph,
hooded box camera, old slide film, flash and all.Furthermore, for the end of the mad scene a
doctor arrived with black bag and hypodermic in the right deltoid … like the
Cuckoo’s Nest.Most unnecessary and from
the box of: “when in doubt, add more” as my decorator uncle used to say.
Popular Italian tenor
Vittorio Grigolo took all the difficult options as Edgardo and at times he was
almost over the top.His final scene in
the graveyard was exemplary, ending the opera on a seriously exciting and
tragically moving point.I was told it
was a semi-tone down … to which I replied: “So what?”
It was a matter of 'if you
have got it, flaunt it!'Ms Pratt sang
an unwritten and unexpected high F (youch!) at the end of the scene with her
brother and the priest.This was about
the only thing I would be critical of but for the magnificent overall
portrayal.A colleague told me that
Beverly Sills once did it.Like the high
E flat in Callas's Mexico City Aida, it is exciting and unique.
The mad scene was a tour de
force and Ms Pratt added quite a few of her own flourishes, all now tasteful
and in keeping with the bel canto piece.Her final cabaletta E flat was the longest and strongest E flat I have
ever heard and it was simply extraordinary, especially when the rest of the
aria was sung to perfection in a stylish manner worthy of any opera house.All principals had voices which were large
and beautiful.It was a shame that
Normanno played admirably by Gregory Schmidt did not hit his optional high note
in the first scene with the woodsmen which would have set the standard for the
Enrico on the Wednesday was
Luca Salsi with Mr Cavaletti on the Saturday, both singing at a very high level
and taking the difficult options.There
were some rubati, ritenuto and other liberties which must have been with the
conductor's permission (Maestro Abbado was back from being indisposed).Raimondo was played more than adequately by bass
Mr Kowaljow from the Ukraine.
The applause from the Met
audience was rapturous, almost ecstatic.Like most operas these days the house was not full.There were no bouquets or ticker-tape which
would certainly have been the case if Ms Pratt had sung the whole season.The comparison with the first soprano could
not be more contrasted.The first was
adequate while the second, Ms Pratt was incomparable.Brava Jessica Pratt who went on to sing I
Puritani in Italy the following week.We
look forward to hearing her Lucia in June/July.
New York offered a real panoply of
opera this April: Cosi fan Tutte, Lucia di Lammermoor, Turandot, Romeo and
Juliette, Luisa Miller, Cendrillon and Tosca at the Met along with Bernstein’s Candide
at Carnegie Hall.Ms Netrebko’s Tosca
was a high point and the only time we saw the Met actually sold out.Her very fine tenor husband Yusif Eyvazov
played Cavaradossi since Marcelo Alvarez had pulled out.We also heard Exteminating Angel, Lucia and
Luisa Miller on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts while we were in the
Our Cosi fan tutte matinee was spoiled by jet-lag so we were fortunate
to get ‘rush’ seats a couple of weeks later, getting much more out of the
brilliant up-dating to 1960s Coney Island fun fair and adjacent ‘Skyline Motel’
in Brooklyn.The sometimes problematic
story line became slightly MORE believable - the girls not recognising their
own lovers … some of the audience might have been in the same boat, such was
the transformation of handsome uniformed naval officers into boyish Brooklyn
denim dandies.Broadway star Kelli
O’Hara played the scheming maid Despina while accomplished baritone Christopher
Maltman played Don Alfonso, patron to the four lovers.
The final season performance of
Turandot may well spell the end of the wonderful grand production set in the
forbidden city of Beijing.Many of the
old productions have been replaced into the ‘close-up’ world of HD telecasts, Aida
and La Boheme remaining from the previous Met dynasties.Martina Serafin was stunning at Turadot but
Marcelo Alvarez has been having vocal problems after losing some weight, or so
we were told, and his Calaf was under-par.Liu was Hei-Kyung Hong a stalwart of the Met for decades and she did not
disappoint with a most touching legato display of vocal and dramatic
We attended the first (ever)
performance of Massenet’s Cendrillon (Cinderella) at the Met.It had three of the world’s top
mezzo-sopranos, Alice Coote, Joyce deDonato and Stephanie Blythe in an
absolutely brilliant production … yet the opera fell flat for me just as Don
Quichotte and Thais had recently.Perhaps
I am not a Massenet person.I just can’t
imagine why he chose to put neither a baritone nor a tenor into a serious opera.Others have substituted a male for Prince
Charming since, but not at The Met where ‘come
scritto’ is the rule.The hen-pecked
father was excellent French bass Laurent Nouri.He also plays old Capulet in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette.
Cendrillon dragged on for 4 long
acts, each a dream of the following one.All I could think of was Rossini’s Cenerentola which had more glorious
melodic invention in its overture than Massenet’s entire piece.A singer friend told me afterwards that it is
more a ballet-person’s opera than a singer’s.Are there any well known arias from Cendrillon?
A fraction of balance was added to
our grand opera schedule was Bernstein’s Candide at Carnegie Hall where Erin Morley was a
magnificent Gunegonde … she will sing Woodbird next year in the Ring I
believe.Her Glitter and Be Gay was like the Queen of the Night on
steroids.It was an unexpected privilege
by chance to meet sopranos Pretty Yende and Camilla Nyland (quite separately)
each in relaxed circumstances far from their costumes, roles, critics, agents,
etc in the Met foyers.Only in New
joined by world class colleagues in splendid outing of this Verdi classic.
Rarely since the Sutherland
days have we heard such dynamic vocalism as from these three magnificent
principal artists and the massed talents of the national opera company and
orchestra.I was so impressed on opening
night that I ventured back mid-season and was not disappointed.Both nights were full houses apart from the
balcony boxes which were almost empty.
Mr Ji-Min Park as the younger
Germont took all the hard options and they came off splendidly.A famous American tenor once called this a
tenor-killer role which few take on a second time such is its vocal and
Ukranian baritone Vitaliy
Bilyy sang and acted a dignified Papa Germont.His voice is deeply resonant with extended breath control, almost like
the late lamented Dmitry Hvorostovsky.His big aria was splendid with some personal flourishes: Di Provenza il mar il suol with full
cabaletta ending the act. He sings very long phrases on single breaths and acts
the drama with sincerity.
But top card goes to soprano
Nicole Car who has ‘arrived’ with this portrayal of Violetta, one of the most
difficult roles in the operatic canon.She is required to sing coloratura in Act 1 then solid dramatic soprano
for the remainder of the 4 acts.It would
be easy to cast the role using two singers but only rarely does a woman come
along who can encompass this double challenge adequately.But Ms Car does more than that as she becomes
the character and sings the heart out of the lines written by the masterful
Verdi at the peak of his powers.
Kobbé describes as the
opera’s “emotional touchstone” Violetta’s plea “Amami, Alfredo, amami quant'io t'amo” which Ms Car sang to its full
richness and pathos.
These three singers would
have sounded very fine in a large opera house so in the confines of our small
auditorium in Sydney the effect was absolutely extraordinary.There were standing ovations on both
occasions I attended this season and well deserved.On the other hand, several magnificent
moments receive polite clapping from an audience which perhaps did not know the
quality and rarity of what they were hearing away from the better known
numbers.In the first five minutes of
the opera comes the duet and chorus Libiamo
sometimes called the drinking song.There is often a whisper of familiarity from members of the audience at
For those into high notes Sempre libera had Ms Car taking the E
flat option on both nights, initially nailing a high, sustained and excitingly
unhurried ending but clipping the note only briefly on the Tuesday
performance.Even if it was transposed
down slightly it was still creditable.The
tenor also sang his (also unwritten) high C or D flat early in Act 2 as a
sustained, accurate and thrilling end to his cabaletta O mio remorso, O infamia.Mr
Bilyy also did some extraordinary things vocally, all tasteful and in keeping
with the paternal part.
production was resurrected for the umpteenth time simply because it is so
good.Despite the small stage, or
perhaps because of it, there is a busy crowd feeling to both first act party
and the gambling scene.
Maestro Licata conducted the
orchestra with sympathetic tempi, fundamental to the joy of these unique
The Merry Widow – second ‘opening’ night 2 Jan 2018.
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
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
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 …’.
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.
Thaïs by Massenet – Concert performance at the Sydney Town
Hall.Saturday 22nd July
The Wiki page on this work states that the title role “is
notoriously difficult to sing and is reserved for only the most gifted of
performers. Modern interpreters have included Carol Neblett, Anna Moffo,
Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price, Renée Fleming, and Elizabeth Futral.”Now that Renee Fleming has announced her
retirement from the opera stage one wondered from the publicity whether Nicole
Car might be the world’s new Thaïs.On
Saturday’s performance there is little chance of this, despite a creditable
performance overall.One wonders at her
advisors, agent and the opera company management with a talented singer so
early in her career.Furthermore, to
sing a rehearsal then two performances within just a few days is something
Renee Fleming has probably never done.
The Sydney audience has been deprived of a winter opera
season for the first time in 60 years due to incompetence of management.Despite long announced repairs to the opera stage
no viable replacement venue or venues were organised early enough causing
cancellation of the main season.Instead
we have a few piecemeal efforts each of which could as easily have been mounted
by the ABC or the private sector.I
believe the entire opera company board should be sacked and an administrator
appointed.An orchestra without a
season, chorus sent home, principal singers unemployed and the public denied mainstream
opera in the city of the world’s most recognisable opera house!
Back to the performance which had many fine aspects, most
notably an enlarged opera orchestra filling the enormous stage of the Town Hall
under the skilled baton of Maestro Guillaume Tourniaire.Massenet was at his most innovative and
creative in his score for Thaïs, notably in the ‘Meditation’ without which the opera
would probably be almost unknown.Jun Yi
Ma, orchestra leader and first violin played exquisitely in what became a
concerto with humming chorus in the full operatic version.So, in his genius, Massenet wrote one of the
most accessible and beautiful pieces within an opera which can only be
performed by a soprano with the rare talents of American Sibyl Sanderson (d.
1903) for whom he also wrote Esclamonde (whose only studio recording is by Joan
Sutherland, such are its vocal demands).The score also evokes every sentiment from morning riverside noises to
ecstatic rhythmics, even one moment which sounds to me like a busy office with
a telephone ringing!
On her performance on Saturday night, it would appear that
Ms Nicole Car has been ill-advised to take on this unique and challenging role,
despite a stunning recent recording of the ‘mirror’ aria. In contrast to her
recording, Ms Car curtailed the terminal high note, losing Massenet’s
intention.This was not the only clipped
high note and furthermore, she appeared uncomfortable in two high passages in
the final duet.A musical colleague mentioned
‘goldfishing’, a term I was not familiar with, possibly in relation to two
quite low notes.Of course opera is much
more than high notes and low notes, yet when they are required an audience
deserves to hear them.Ms Car has a
regal presence on stage, a pleasing vocal delivery with poise, accuracy and
Company regular Richard Anderson as Palemon started
proceedings with his elegant basso voice and even delivery.French Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, who
is Nichole Car’s partner in real life and father of their young baby, sang the
enormous role of Athanael with great aplomb. He pushed the vocal limits without strain or
inelegance, raising goose bumps in my case.
Rich city-slicker and Thaïs’ current lover Nicias was
performed by excellent company tenor Simon Kim.As with the others, he sang accurately and with obvious knowledge of
what he was singing.Other supporting cast were also excellent
along with male and female chorus situated behind the orchestra, next to the
enormous pipe organ (which sadly was not used).
The story of Massenet’s Egyptian masterpiece finds us in seamy
and steamy Alexandria in the early Christian era where Athanael is trying to
convince the object of his attention, Thaïs, to convert to a monastic life from
her life of depravity as a follower of Venus, ensuring eternal life. Only
by the third act does he realise that he is physically attracted to Thaïs and
by then she is dying.He renounces God,
Jesus and the scriptures in favour of the flesh … all too late, unfortunately.But this IS opera!
So I feel on the one hand that we were fortunate to hear
this rare work but uncomfortable that our lead lady was misled to tackle such a
role at this time.
As a venue the Sydney Town Hall leaves much to be
desired.Little has changed since Nellie
Melba sang here.The single narrow entry
(for security reasons I understand) led to a queue before the performance going
most of the way down Druitt Street almost to Kent Street.Disabled patrons were permitted to enter by