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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:  

03 May, 2016

Soprano Greta Bradman sings in Bowral. Piano/'cello concert this Friday at St Jude's.

Greta Bradman, soprano recital at St Judes Church, Bowral Sunday 1/5/16
Dear Colleagues,
This was a welcomed return of the Bradman name and talents to Bowral in an auspicious program of some of the most challenging operatic repertoire with piano and organ bonus items from accompanist Rhys Boak.  We also had some lighter works: Edelweiss, When you Wish upon a Star, It is Always a Rainbow Day (by the Don) and My Hero from The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus. 
I would have been satisfied with just one of the following: Casta diva from Norma (with cabaletta); Caro nome from Rigoletto; Damor sullali rosee (without cabaletta) from Il Trovatore; Queen of Nights second act aria; I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls, Il est doux, il est bon (Herodiade).  But we got the lot in a single long bracket of glorious vocalism. 
Ms Bradman spoke about each work, placing it in context.  She seemed relaxed and comfortable with the audience and her accompanist, giving some local anecdotes and expressing her gratitude at the support she has been given. 
Ms Bradman has a beautiful and well trained voice, reaching from a low to high register with ease and an even timbre throughout the octaves.  Her breath control is well schooled and her tempi well chosen.  She has a fine natural sounding extended trill and other ornaments.  The low range is full chested while frequent high notes in the Mozart were accurate and full volume.  At times there was a steeliness to the voice which regularly gave way to her natural warm velvet tone. 
I measure singers by my own degree of goose flesh and there was plenty on this Autumn Sunday afternoon.  I just got the first thrill reading the program which contained some of my all-time favourite pieces (Casta diva was second on the long list). 
The church was full but it still suffers from the Anglican problem of single doors and takes half an hour or more to fill or empty.  I think it is a product of the vicars of old wanting to shake the hand of every single congregant so none could by-pass the official party.  The new section (also entered by a single narrow doorway) is very comfortable where drinks were served and Ms Bradman mingled with the hoi polloi.  She looked beautiful in a long silky dress with fallen shoulder straps. 
I felt privileged to be hearing this new talent on the scene and hope that one day we may hear her on the stage in a full opera.  She seems to have all the necessary attributes vocally, yet an opera singer needs much more in what must be one of the most difficult careers. 
We were told by the Rector that this Friday famous pianist Katherine Selby is having a concert with cello -  Highly recommended. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

30 April, 2016

Abduction from the Seraglio at the Met - season opening success.

Seraglio gala ends Andrew Byrne's Met marathon. Friday 22 April 2016
This Met Abduction from the Seraglio was splendid in every way.  Osmin was the old hand as Hans-Peter Konig with both vocal powers and comic talents to carry off this hilarious and contrasting role.  His younger four Christian protagonists show their amazing metal starting with Paul Appleby whose very first love-loon aria contained some ‘John McCormack’ breaths and cantabile legato singing. 
Ms Shagimuratova shone as Konstanze with two of the most difficult arias exquisitely executed.  Equally impressive was Kathleen Kim as Blondchen who slipped in some almost unbelievable high notes into her already high tessitura.  Brenton Ryan had a debut success as Pedrillo. 
James Levine received a rapturous ovation as his orchestra and the Met chorus did their 'thing' as professionally as ever.  The maestro is wheel-chair bound and is thus installed on the podium well before the start.  Rather than walking on he manoeuvres the motorised chair to 180 degrees and is spot-lit, same in the ‘curtain’ calls.  His retirement from the top job was announced recently but he will still guest-conduct a number of operas next season. 

The opera might better be called The Clemenza di Pasha (played by actor Matthias von Stegmann).  After two acts of hilarity we have a philosophical and instructive lesson for the meddlesome  Europeans.  The 1978 John Dexter production is a colourful cardboard cut-out stylised eastern palace - but it works.  
I have seen some spectacular opera at the Met during April including two performances of Roberto Devereux and a mind-numbing Elektra.  More details if anyone is interested ... Also, very grateful for the welcome in this phenomenal city.  Back to reality in Sydney for the month of May. 
Regards, Andrew Byrne .. 

27 April, 2016

Roberto Devereux divine in New York.

Sondra Radvanovsky shines as Queen Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux at the Met.  This is her third Donizetti queen after Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda.  Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien had been sick and cancelled during the week but was back for the HD on Saturday matinee (I went twice!).  Along with Ms Radvanovsky from Illinois, we heard Latvian mezzo Elena Garanca as Sarah and American tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role.  This opera promised much but delivered even beyond ones wildest expectations! 
The production by David McVicar used a formal setting with sliding façade on two levels with courtiers watching all the proceedings from above.  Between the Tower of London and Henry VIII’s country palace “Nonesuch” scene changes were seamless.  
My words must fail to fully describe the feeling in the house on those nights.  All I can compare it with is the old Sutherland or Pavarotti nights.  Electricity in the air.  Expectation and just damn dramatic delivery from all present demonstrating all the best qualities of good opera.  It was tough to determine who exactly was the star.  The overture starts with God save our gracious queen which was more than atmospheric (nobody stood up!).  Under Maestro Maurizio Benini the Met orchestra also shone bright. 
Ms Garanca was the surprise for me as she undertook the challenging if somewhat unrewarding role of the amorous rival Sarah.  At times I wondered if she had swapped her score for the coloratura soprano as she soared with elegant legato singing over an enormous range including some very high notes.  Mr Polenzani has progressed and developed over many years, as Edgardo and Alfredo up to his current title role which is extremely well acquitted. 
Ms Radvanovsky puts in the most phenomenal vocal and dramatic performance we have seen in a very long time.  Even in the first of three acts (two were put together) she had a tour-de-force equal to anything else in the repertoire (and reminiscent of the finale of Lucrezia Borgia).  After the almost instantaneous standing ovation at the end our soprano seemed visibly shocked, looking behind herself wondering who everybody was applauding.  Sutherland sometimes did something similar in curtain calls: are you all applauding little-old-me?  At other times we received a respectful but regal look, showing no emotion whatever.  At a certain point Ms Radvanovsky kissed her hand and pressed it to the stage floor. 
The curtain calls were more like football than opera.  An enthusiast has put a video of the applause onto YouTube!  ( ).   The penultimate duet is on YouTube:  Other excerpts c/o Met Opera:  

While the rest of the world saw it live that Saturday, Australians will find it worth a visit to the cinema in July.  This obscure but wonderful opera may turn out to be one of the Mets most popular outreach HD broadcasts to date.  Unlike most operas in recent years, the house was completely sold out for these performances. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

29 March, 2016

Sydney Harbour Turandot

Turandot - Puccini - Opera on Sydney Harbour Thurs 24 March 2016 7.30pm
Dear Colleagues,
For the fifth year in a row the opera company has put on an open-air extravaganza at Mrs Macquaries Chair, a narrow native peninsula which juts out into Sydney Harbour just east of the opera house and in full view of the entire city, sunset and subsequent stars (and full moon rise on cue at 7.30pm).  Even mini-golf could become interesting in such a setting (each to their own!).  Dining before the opera on the artificial parapet with the setting sun and harbour backdrop was all quite magical.  The food was excellent but would not be found in Cheap-eats. 
The pontoon opera is not real opera because it is amplified.  However, one has to appreciate the spectacle, ambiance and fun of the fair.  And there was plenty of fun in this opening night event in addition to the opera.  I confess mixed feelings about the taking public foreshore property for this very elite purpose and about the Hollywoodisation of opera.  The latter especially as we were in full view of the Opera House where fine opera still happens from time to time, regardless of the weather. 
On the Olympic sized pontoon stage was an enormous sculpted dragons head on the left with stylised body and tail across to the right behind a tall silver tower looking something like a monster Darlek from Doctor Who.  The latter was suitably fenestrated for appearances and descent of the Ice Princess and ascent of the lovers in the finale. 
The opera opens with a suspended Mandarin town crier reminding the crowds of the ancient law regarding would-be suitors of Turandot.  Mr Dubinski sang like he always sings, somewhat less than perfect.  At times he did not even seem to sing the notes Puccini carefully chose for him.  David Lewis sang well as Emperor, appearing on a broad suspended chaise with the Writ of the Riddles as his painful duty for the beautiful princesss betrothal. 
All of the other singers were also top-class.  As slave girl, Liu, the secondary soprano role can up-stage the title role and we were not disappointed with either.  The very expensive glossy souvenir program does not inform us who was actually singing since there were doubles for the major roles.  Because of early Easter the opera was performed on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, etc, keeping us guessing about the principals identities.  As in the opera house, there should have been a cast list at the very least. 
Ping, Pang and Pong were perfectly cast as the chattering public servants.  John Longmuir, Benjamin Rasheed and Luke Gabbedy sang and acted their routines with style and flair.  And THEY are to sing EVERY night until 24th April according to the program (Mondays excluded). 
The chorus sang and acted brilliantly and I presume body microphones and careful mixing yielded the satisfying auditory production, balanced with the Neptunian orchestra under baton of underworld Maestro Brian Castles-Onion.  At least they got to parade centre-stage in the curtain calls. 
Careful trawling on the companys web-site finds that opening-night Turandot was performed by Serbian super-soprano Dragana Radakovic, Liu by Hyeseoung Kwon and Calaf by Riccardo Massi.  They were all incomparable in my view.  This cast is to sing again on Sunday 27th and Tuesday 29th April.  Veteran Kiwi bass Conal Coad plays blind Timur, king without a kingdom. 
Nessun dorma is the great tenor showpiece everyone waits for and it did not disappoint, Mr Massi singing a fine aria and holding a long penultimate note to enormous ovation.  And then fireworks were released just in case anyone was still asleep (Nessun dorma means no-one sleeps).  After the clapping we had a reprise of several bars so the through-written third act could continue.  Puccini never intended the final word, vincero to be sung as it is now (the first person plural is one exception to the usual Italian rule of emphasis to be placed on the second last vowel). 
For these operas the company uses one intermission, thus pushing acts together with a few cuts.  Three short acts as Puccini wrote would allow more mingling, more food and another drink in two intermissions.  It would also allow the singers and orchestra two proper breaks in a very full evening. 
Tickets range from $70 to $330 with options for supper, drinks and glossy program.  There are no bad seats although I would advise avoiding the front 4 rows.  Take binoculars if you want to see the expressions on the singers faces. 
Written by Andrew Byrne ..
G.Rossini, Semiramide Overture (for 8 pianos)