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27 September, 2006

La Rondine in concert at the Sydney Opera House on the equinox

La Rondine - Giacomo Puccini.

Concert performance with Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House.

Saturday 23rd September (the equinox; day after Rosh Hashana and new moon; day before the start of Ramadan Holy Month).

MagdaAlexia Voulgaridou
RuggeroMassimo Giordano
LisetteLaura Cherici
PrunierDanilo Formaggia
RambaldoJosé Carbo
RayonierDidier Frederic
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
ConductorGianluigi Gelmetti

Dear Colleagues,

This was a splendid performance all round of a neglected masterpiece. The opera (or operetta) needs two top operatic sopranos as well as two top tenors. Tosca could be done in two theatres with much the same vocal input. Most of the main principals in this case were from overseas which seems odd when we have such talent here in Australia awaiting the call from Mr Gelmetti. By contrast, the opera company, I understand, is only permitted to import about 6 singers each year! Here, we heard as many on the one night.

The piece opens brusquely with a full thrust orchestral passage before our characters start introducing themselves individually. There are several such contrasts during the piece going from 'conversation piece' for fortissimo ensemble within a phrase. This well illustrates the best things we are told about being in Paris (or any other vibrant city from Cairo to New York).

Both of our sopranos were top-class. It was a shock to find out early on that "Doretta's aria" is not an aria at all ... and further, that it is not sung by the soprano! At least not initially. We hear the familiar opening arpeggios on the piano as "Doretta's dream" is sung by the poet/gigolo, Prunier. It becomes a duet, or even a duel ... with Magda taking up the poet's offer to supply an appropriate ending to the unfinished 'dream of Doretta'. Everyone has woken up at the most interesting part of a dream. All very clever dramatically: and proof if any were needed of Puccini's paramount skills and of his librettist, Adami.

La Rondine (the swallow) has three acts of half an hour each. One and two were run together with the second taking place at Bullier's nightclub. Here we have drink, merriment, confusion, disguise, mistaken identity and a love scene with myriad opportunities for vocal extravagance.

Act III sees our love birds flown south to the Riviera yet a fatal flaw denies them true happiness, leaving a curtain conundrum. No corpses litter the stage, yet there is to be no happy ending either. Yet another stoke of genius in daring to be different. While in some ways unsatisfactory, this is probably more like real life than any fairy tale operetta. After scintillating romance, life goes on and people just move apart.

The principal singers were all excellent with Ms Voulgaridou giving a sensational performance (especially considering she did the same the night before). She has an icy edge to her voice which she uses to great advantage over a wide range. It is large and well projected with delicate shading. Mr Giordano seemed somewhat casual at times and it was hard to know if it was 'in character' or just 'him'. He sang with flare and taste but seemed a little under-powered compared his role in Mignon at Carnegie Hall last year. Maybe it was jet-lag, another reason to use locals if they are available.

José Carbo sang the relatively small role of Rambaldo, patron and partner of Magda. He sings a creditable Figaro but unfortunately had no real 'factotum' show-piece tonight. I hope he was paid his full fee nonetheless.

The supporting soloists were excellent: soubrettes Penelope Mills, Katherine Tier, Jessica Pratt along with Henry Choo, Didier Frederic and the Philharmonia (massed) Choir.

The orchestra was quite overpowering at times and it was Puccini rather than Gelmetti who resolved the imbalance by thinning the orchestration in the many 'intimate' moments. The sound of orchestra and chorus was most exciting with the excellent acoustic of the concert hall.

Meantime the opera company in the hall opposite on Benelong Point is continuing to produce high quality opera with a revival of Neil Armfield's Jenufa featuring Elizabeth Whitehouse, Jamie Allen, Cheryl Barker and Peter Wedd conducted by Richard Hickox. Jamie Allen has progressed to be able to sing and act flawlessly in diverse roles. I do not understand Janacek and found the raw emotion of the plot unmatched by the music which I just find uninspiring and flat. I know that this is my problem, not Janacek's. However, it must be profoundly disappointing for management to see an opening night so thinly sold.

We look forward to continuing performances of Rigoletto, Julius Caesar and Pirates of Penzance. Also, the company has a promising "50th Birthday Gala Concert" advertised for next month. Like marriages and mortgages, most opera collaborations last less than a decade - so this is an auspicious celebration indeed on the world stage of opera.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..