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21 October, 2006

Joan Sutherland's 80th birthday and Australian opera company turns 50

Opera Australia 50th birthday concert. Sydney Opera House

Wed 11th October 2006

Dear Colleagues,

This concert was heavily billed and at $400 for the best seats, an impressive cast and the presence of Joan Sutherland, to there were high expectations. But amongst some high quality opera singing there were also disappointments. In some respects, the opera company seems to lack a clear direction, both artistically and regarding human resources. On the night, several simple flaws could have been easily remedied yet other more fundamental defects may require major remedial work. Why, for instance, did Peter Coleman-Wright, an excellent baritone, sing an aria often sung by basses? He was not able to shine on the lowest notes, losing the essence of the raw emotion Beethoven’s score demands in Fidelio.

Equally, why was superlative Wagnerian tenor Glenn Winslade asked to sing a coloratura aria from Idomeneo? After a sub-optimal performance in Clemenza di Tito recently, he seemed out of his fach again. One wonders if there is anyone in the company who actually reads the many professional reviews that are written, letters sent and comments made? One did not need any training to hear the vocal difficulties.

We were told that the company was founded on Mozart who has been a mainstay since the original 4 Köchel operas in 1956. The operas of Donizetti and Bellini catapulted our guest of honour to stardom and yet neither of these ‘greats’ was sung all evening.

The two most popular requests from Australian audiences, we are told, are Pearlfishers and David Hobson. Again, neither was to be heard, despite the latter singing G&S with the company currently. Hobson had excellent notices as Candide in Perth recently as well as high-rating national TV appearances. No sensible opera management could afford to ignore such a popular artist in his prime, just as with latter-day icons Donald Smith, Joan Carden and Joan Sutherland who filled theatres for decades.

While Britten is not my personal favourite, the two excerpts “Old Joe has gone fishin’” and the finale from Midsummer Night’s Dream were certainly well received by those who like that sort of thing. The double Shakespearian end to the night was apposite, Puck and Falstaff.

We heard Elizabeth Connell in the Liebestod, Lisa Gasteen in ‘Dich, teure Halle’ from Tannäuser, John Wegner in ‘Scintille diamant’ from Hoffmann, Emma Matthews in Olympia’s song, Yvonne Kenny in Vilja, Michael Lewis in a declamation from Australian opera Madeline Lee. All were creditable, while Matthews and Wegner gave sensational performances. ‘Va pensiero’ was well rendered by an experienced, talented and very hard-working chorus.

Two other excepts from the popular repertory kept the crowds happy, both featuring the company’s latest ‘hot property’, tenor Rosario La Spina. From Act IV of Rigoletto we heard a gushing ‘La Donna è mobile’ followed by the quartet. Act II finale of La Bohème was also splendid, even if the tenor only has a few big notes at the end after Musetta has taken stage. I find it odd that Pamela Helen Stephen (Mrs Hickox) would be partaking in the Opera Australia birthday function when, until this week, as an excellent Sesto in Julius Caesar, she had never sung with the company. ‘Vissi d’arte’ with Cheryl Barker was dropped without any mention of why.

We had been promised a “surprise” which came after the Falstaff ‘Tutto nel mondo’ in the form of a blackout, followed by a hugely amplified (and rather distorted) second verse of “Ah non giunge” from La Sonnambula sung by a very young Joan Sutherland. This was followed by strains of the entire night’s company singing ‘happy birthday’ to ticker-tape. Joan Sutherland turns 80 next month. She looked radiant and appreciative when the doting audience gave her a standing ovation.

As an encore we were presented with the finale from Midsummer Night’s Dream with counter-tenor Graham Pushee and children’s chorus, concluded by compare Anthony Warlow.

While it is novel to hear the full Opera and Ballet Orchestra on the stage rather then in the pit, it is a shame that Mr Hickox did not tone down the volume for the sake of the singers, some of whom had to struggle to be heard, and in some cases producing a forced sound as in the Rosenkavalier trio. The War and Peace overture seemed lacklustre and was an odd choice to get people into the mood for a Joan Sutherland birthday gala. Yet the Prokofiev opened the opera house in 1972 (and has never been heard of again). Meistersinger overture in the second half also seemed to lack something - perhaps they should have included the opening chorus ‘come scritto’.

If the concert was to be user-friendly and get new people (and keep old hands) interested in the genre, it is essential that patrons can follow the words and drama, which, after all, is the essence of opera. On the night, there were no subtitles, no libretto, no auditorium lighting and in some cases poor enunciation which all conspired to keep us in our respective ignorance. The company should have a birthday resolution that they never perform anything, anywhere unless every member of the audience has access to English titles. This is not rocket science. It was a mercy that the heavy, glossy program was included in the hefty prices of the tickets. A great shame, however, that it did not contain a libretto.

We are lucky to have an opera company in Australia. We are lucky that it puts on high quality opera much of the time. A sign of its maturity, size and scope is that on the very night of this concert, the company put on another concert in the adjoining hall as a tribute to volunteer workers in charitable organisations in the region. Well done to all participants - at least two performed in both concerts on the one night!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..