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15 December, 2008

Manon from Berlin on DVD - magic night at the opera, at home!

Manon by Massenet. Berlin Staatsoper April/May 2007. Deutsche Grammophon DVD of live performance.

Manon - Anna Netrebko
Chevalier des Grieux - Rolando Villazon
Comte des Grieux - Christof Fisch Esser
Lescaut - Alfredo Daza
Guillot de Morfontaine - Remy Corazza
Bretigny – Arttu Kataja
Grisettes – Hanan Alattar, Gal James, Silvia de la Muela
Innkeeper – Matthias Vieweg

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Director: Vincent Paterson
Stage design: Johannes Leiacker
Costumes: Susan Hilferty
Chorus and orchestra of Staatsoper, Unter den Linden, Berlin.

Dear Colleagues,

I am still reeling from the beauty and sheer class of this magnificent live opera from Berlin. It shows just what can be done with talent, imagination and a true operatic masterpiece. I have not enjoyed an opera so much for years, live or recorded! Second and third viewings have yielded even more pleasures in a clever, up-dated and sympathetic production with top rate singers, dancers, actors and musicians. The character development, main love theme, side stories and final disastrous denouement are all absolutely captivating.

The opera seems perfectly credible in the mid 20th century as long as one takes Manon’s capital crime as more than just cohabiting (there is an implication that she has stolen money from Guillot).

The opera opens in a bustling grand railway concourse where Manon emerges from a huge crowd to be first greeted and then lectured by her cousin soldier Lescaut. We also meet the scheming veteran Guillot who tries to befriend the young lady while Lescaut is away briefly. Next, during a slightly longer absence at the barracks, a more intense and yet equally hopeless liaison commences.

Chevalier Des Grieux takes her attentions. His self-conscious boyish behaviour is most engaging for both audience and the object of his attention. He is in a school blazer and his shirt is hanging out. Netrebko and Villazon become lovers within minutes, yielding the first of many glorious scenes which New York publicity called “a chemistry lesson”!

Next we have a light-hearted rustic boudoir scene with pillow fight in underwear. Our cupid-struck couple are self involved and enraptured. And they again sing expressively with their characteristic interactions.

Netrebko adds some soft porn to her famous aria bidding farewell to their little table which so often brought them together. She showing a deal of flesh while lying face up on the very table she is singing about. Following the applause for Villazon’s glorious rendition of ‘The Dream’ we hear an urgent double ring on a modern electronic door bell ‘ding-dong, ding-dong’, reminding us that we are in 1950 … and that the plotters are calling, meaning that the lovers are about to go their separate ways.

The outdoor jour-de-fete scene sees Netrebko at her most evocative in her famous gavotte. Guillot brings the ballet to the open air and also pays for the drinks. The short but intense ‘pas de trios’ dance scene involves two men and a woman as the opera’s three protagonists. An unusually tall dancer represents Des Grieux while an attractive female along with her uniformed ‘protector’ made a synchronous and appealing burst of movement, beauty and energy. The ballet does not have the desired effect as Guillot is left alone while Manon calls for a carriage to seek out her Chevalier on his monastic mission.

In the Saint Suplice scene we now hear Villazon at his best in “Ah fuyez, douce image” which is answered by another rapprochement between the lovers.

The Hotel le Transylvanie Casino scene could be in Las Vegas itself with the bright lights, dance and seemingly modern music. After some festivities, drinking, gambling and alleged cheating or even theft the authorities are involved rather like prohibition scenes in old movies.

The Louisiana scene (actually ‘the road to Le Havre’ in the Massenet version) sees pathetic changes as a waisted waif who started out the hale novice brunette, developed a Marilyn Monroe shocking blond by act IV but by now is grey and thinning. The death scene is ravishing, as the tenor carries our soprano off into the sunset (exactly like the Disney spoof on Wagner, limp arm dangling).

The chorus, solo singers and actors are all of the highest standard in this performance. Even the extras seem to have been chosen based on individuality.

Maestro Daniel Barenboim draws things together without drawing attention overly to himself or his excellent orchestra. They take the final curtain call, smaller instruments in hand, centre stage - well deserved and apposite. The trade-mark Berlin on-stage spot-lights were still in place from the death scene.

The overall performance is opera at its very best in my estimation. Highly recommended.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Dr Andrew Byrne MB BS (Syd) FAChAM (RACP)
Dependency Medicine,
75 Redfern Street, Redfern,
New South Wales, 2016, Australia
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06 November, 2008

La Boheme TV travesty from Sydney Opera House.

La Boheme, Wednesday 29th October 2008. Broadcast on ABC2.

This was a sorry piece of opera on television. The inevitable comparison with recent live broadcasts from the Met and elsewhere shows this was a dismal failure in almost every respect.

La Boheme revolves around Rodolfo yet Italian tenor Carlo Barricelli was not up to the mark. He looked awkward on stage and while he may be adequate in the opera theatre, he was not the man for close-ups, visually or vocally. His voice sounded strained and unpleasant at times. He managed the most taxing notes of ‘Che gelida manina’ but had little nuanced line to his singing.

Ms Halloran (Mimi) and Ms Farrugia (Musetta) both sang adequately, as did the students, played by Jose Carbo, Richard Anderson and Warwick Fyfe. Mr Carbo has a fine stage presence and it is a shame he seems to be underutilised by the company. John Bolton-Wood was good as the Jewish landlord and elderly paramour, Alcindoro. However, with the exception of the Waltz Song in Act II, the opera never quite came to life for me. It was like a cast of competent understudies.

From a technical viewpoint a series of things went horribly wrong. In fact, hardly anything went right. Latecomers walking down the rows blocked the picture like an old fashioned cinema. The lighting seemed to be skewed pink and orange at times, notably in the Café Momus scene. In the middle of Act III there was a sudden break of continuity as the scene jumped forward a minute or more. Rodolfo appears from nowhere, like a ‘Scotty beam me up’ character. The camera views were conventional but they excluded the orchestra and conductor which should be half the pleasure of live opera. The characters each had head microphones so the sound was artificially mixed and unlike what it sounded like in the theatre, most obvious with Mimi’s tubercular coughing. We expect better than this from our national broadcaster

During the 15 minute intermission a non-English speaking singer was interviewed without an interpreter. Unlike Manuel on Fawlty Towers, it was not funny. Why would the ABC choose to use one of the country’s best known comedians, Chris Taylor as co-host? He looked and sounded like he was playing a comedy routine. Along with Jennifer Byrne, they showed not the slightest insight into the opera and each used an enthusiastic ‘over-the-top’ approach as if this were the greatest show on earth which it certainly was not!

Chris Taylor told us, incorrectly, that this was a ‘brand new’ production. In his interview with Ms Farrugia he mis-pronounced Musetta as Masetto on repeated occasions despite being corrected. Maestro Cuneo’s corridor interview was haltering and meaningless, following shallow and leading questions from Jennifer Byrne. There was also an irrelevant reference to Puccini being ‘popular with the ladies’.

Mr Taylor may have jinxed the broadcast in saying they would ‘try to cross to Federation Square later’. When they did, our screen went blank for several minutes, without explanation. And when we did finally see the southern capital, only about a dozen diehards were in the huge square watching the big screen. Simon Phillips’ only useful comment was that his production was not really meant to be seen from close-up.

They say that everything in the theatre is about timing. Well, it was hopeful at best, incompetent at worst, to broadcast La Boheme mid-week at the end of a run of 6 performances in 12 days. The singers could not have been in top form. The commentary was unrehearsed and amateurish. The transmission and camera work had deficiencies. The Benoit ‘rent-collection’ scene had almost 50 changes of camera, more like a tennis match than a clever verbal stoush between seated characters. Both Mr Barricelli and Mr Fyfe took liberties with Puccini’s score.

As a cruel twist, the broadcast finished with the famous vocals of David Hobson and Cheryl Barker singing the Act I duet during the credits. The original video of La Boheme from this company with Baz Luhrmann is still popular to this day and serves to remind us of what this company could do with some imagination and flair which is sadly lacking today.

Rather than trying to repeat history, a broadcast of the company’s recent production of Billy Budd would have been much more logical. It had a world renowned cast, director and conductor and would have been a unique and worthy Australian contribution to the world of opera on film with an international market. It might have even made money!

This La Boheme broadcast provides further evidence that the opera company is being mismanaged. Such pedestrian standards should cause an immediate review of the company before it is too late. If the subscriber base wanes and public funding tied to jobs and standards dries up then repertory opera could cease to exist in this country.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

19 October, 2008

Adequate La Boheme does not imply adequate management.

La Bohème, Sydney Opera House. Tuesday 14th October 2008.
Rodolfo - Carlo Barricelli
Mimi - Antoinette Halloran
Musetta - Amelia Farrugia
Marcello - José Carbó
Schaunard - Warwick Fyfe
Colline - Richard Anderson
Benoit/Alcindoro - John Bolton Wood
c. Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo

Dear Colleagues,
This non-subscription La Boheme outing went ‘without incident’. Most of the cast members were more than adequate and the performance seemed well rehearsed and balanced.
Australian tenor Carlo Barricelli had quite a success, with a ringing top to the voice if some slightly rough edges elsewhere and a couple of unimportant flat notes. He is a tall, well proportioned figure on stage, acting confidently with a good grip on this long and difficult role. Ms Halloran gave us a credible Mimi. Basso Mr Anderson sounded better than he did in Lucia - but I cannot condone singing the famous “Coat” aria seated on the toilet! Mr Carbo is almost too good for Marcello. This role should normally be done by an ‘up and coming’ baritone: Mr Carbo has definitely ‘arrived’ on the international scene and is to sing at La Scala in a few months. Needless to say he sang well, even if Puccini did not give him an aria. Warwick Fyfe sang with his usual gusto.

The company has given these young Bohemians the Herculean task of singing four acts with only one intermission … as well as six performances with only one rest day between, rather than the two normally allowed. This sort of scheduling is dangerous and uncalled-for in my medical opinion. Does occupational health and safety not extend to vocal cords? After singing major performances endoscopy often shows oedema and inflammatory changes and these need time to resolve. Every opera singer is familiar with this ‘cycle’, yet few young singers can afford to refuse to sing, even excessively, when invited by the impresario. Management seems to forget that these roles were written as vocal ‘marathons’. I note that the recent Britten and Janacek performances conducted by Richard Hickox had an average 2.7 days between performances compared with 1.5 for the La Boheme company.

This demonstrates further the deep flaws of which the company stands accused in the media across the country in recent times. The casting of Pearlfishers, Cinderella, Don Giovanni and My Fair Lady was mostly unadventuresome, using local artists and hardly an international star singer between them. Yet Billy Budd had four international stars (Tahu Rhodes, Langridge, Hickox and Armfield) and two Australasian stars of the first order (Wegner and Coad) in the one opera!! This is obviously lopsided, biased and inconsistent. And great if you are a Britten fan but too bad for the rest.

The Tuesday night, near sell-out house seemed delighted with this performance of La Boheme. So the management will again justify themselves based on the profit line and audience response. Yet management has been derelict on so many fronts that it is tragic as it is indefensible. The Saturday Age newspaper has a major front page feature pointing to some of these deficiencies (see links below). Yet the musical director, general manager and the board chair have continued to deny any shortcomings which is unrealistic and self defeating in the circumstances. Sadly, soprano Cheryl Barker has moved from her regal neutrality by writing an uninsightful and blistering letter to the editor in support of current management while condemning ‘a few bitter and disgruntled people’. I have not found any independent expert opinion in favour of opera management recently. Something has to ‘give’.

To justify its large public grant, the company used to employ several dozen Australian soloist singers who could count on job security, buy a house, raise a family like the rest of us. Now all soloists are on short term contracts and there are no on-salary positions - except in administration.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

12 October, 2008

Janacek’s Makropulos revisited in Sydney.

The Makropulos Secret - Sydney Opera House Tuesday 7th October 2008

As Emilia Marty, Cheryl Barker shone in this stellar performance of Janacek’s second last opera. The company’s longest serving soloist, John Pringle was splendid as Prus in his final role before retirement from the company. He showed once again how his professionalism can carve out a complex character in opera. English tenor Peter Wedd had the vocal and dramatic goods for Gregor. I was a little surprised that he was chosen over a local artist, although good tenors are always in short supply. The supporting singers were also all excellent, opening with Kanan Breen as the legal librarian, Vitek. Almost up-staging everyone was Robert Gard as Hauk. Rather like Elena Obratsova in a wheel chair, he was a perfectly credible senior citizen: audible, geriatric and pathetic. One might say ‘beyond Falstaff’.

Richard Hickox was in his element and the Opera and Ballet Orchestra did a fine job with this singular score. They received a thunderous ovation.

The curtain first went up on this Prague thriller in 1926. Whether unconsciously or not, Janacek seems to have taken many strains, orchestrations and rhythms from Fanciulla del West which premiered in 1910. Most 20th century composers were influenced by Puccini in some way … and yet Makropulos Secret (or “Case” or “Affair”) is no ‘copy-cat’ work.

During act one of the performance all the stage lighting suddenly blacked out while the principals’ spotlights continued to shine for their duet. After struggling on for several bars, Richard Hickox gestured for the orchestra to stop, turned to the audience and said something like “well, stumped by electricity” in his strong English accent. At that very moment, the stage lights came back on. He turned back several pages, as in a rehearsal, announced a particular suitable bar number, then starting only when the characters had resumed the earlier positions on the stage. It was edifying to see company members coping in such unusual and unpredictable circumstances. By coincidence I had said to a friend before going in that something extraordinary often happens in this opera - once a singer even died on stage in a Met performance.

The story could only exist in opera or a religious text, yet it is a foil for a marvellous unfolding ‘who-done-it’ drama based between an immortal diva and a long standing inheritance dispute along the lines of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Armfield’s production and Oberle’s settings are so stylish that one wonders why the company let it all languish in the basement for 12 years. And while I am not a Janacek fan, his operas have always been quite popular in Sydney, notably Jenufa of which we have had three productions in living memory.

The opening night house was heavily ‘papered’ with lots of company members, family, friends and hangers-on seen in good seats. I made a point of sitting in the back row of the circle (completely alone, of course) for one act to take in the least favourable acoustic in the hall. It was surprisingly good as every note and word could be clearly heard, thanks partly to excellent diction of the singers.

Like the Billy Budd season, the high quality of the work should promise better houses and there are many Janacek fans who should not miss this outing. I heard that last week the Britten was almost a sell-out.

It is a great shame that the management has still not responded productively to the current severe and widespread media criticism. Much of the ‘commentary’ could be put to rest by a few phone-calls, yet digging in and denying any shortcomings is not a wise strategy, especially when lives and careers of vital Australian artists are involved, not to mention the quality of opera performances. An impresario needs to be like the curator of a museum … yet we are dealing with live exhibits here. Artists, like management, can be difficult and egotistical. But the public deserves better and communication is the name of the game. Let’s hope that reason shines through and people manage to swallow their pride and return to the armistice lines before the ‘war’ started. And a ‘sorry’ here and there would not go astray I believe.

We hope that the new season of La Boheme is a great success and that returned Australian-born Italian tenor Carlo Barricelli makes a classy Rodolfo. The company has already made unusual demands by providing only one ‘lay day’ between most performances. But the show must go on! Season starts Tuesday 14th October

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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15 September, 2008

Crikey letter to Opera Board Chair ...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Letter to Opera Australia

A concerned Opera Australia subscriber writes:

Thursday, 4 September 2008Mr Gordon Fell,Chairman, Opera Australia,Elizabeth St, Surry Hills, 2010

Subject: Performance standards

Dear Mr Fell,

I wish to contribute to the current debate on standards at Opera Australia. We have read strong criticisms by previously employed opera singers and equally powerful letters of support from currently employed artists. Because each of these could be seen as self interested, I believe that it may be more instructive to deal with facts in an unemotional manner.
Major concerns as raised by others and which I share:

The employment of the wife of the musical director as a mezzo-soprano soloist in the company. This is a most unusual but not unique situation. Your Board has a responsibility to subscribers, other artists and funding agencies to ensure that Mrs Hickox has been engaged in a manner which is fair and equitable as well as at arm’s length from her husband (and consistent with his contract). Similar situations in business, politics, or medical practice would normally not permit such an arrangement at all and the spouse would need to seek employment elsewhere…

Guest artists in the past four years, with few exceptions, have been of a lower standard of fame, quality and probably cost (in current dollar terms) than previously. In addition, the guest artists have often been used for small numbers of performances of what might be termed “boutique” or “connoisseur” operas such as Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. While this is not a criticism in itself, it does mean that such guest artists have only been heard in a very small proportion of the performances given by the company.

Each year under former administrations the national company showcased at least one and sometimes three or four very famous singers each year, even if we exclude Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge’s appearances. The names include people who have made significant recordings, memorable performances at the great opera houses of the world and are or were draw-cards of the highest calibre. Such names include Botha, Connell, Jo, Schorg, Mitchell, McIntyre, Cole, Zschau, Marton, Vaness, Glossop, Milnes, Tourangeau, Horne, Pavarotti, Te Kanawa, Loringar, Resnick and Marenzi, a very incomplete list.

A more recent list includes some fine artists, but fewer in number and often of a second or third order in comparison to the above. Several of the artists have been somewhat disappointing such as Rhys Meirion, Richard Berkley Steele and Michael Todd Simpson.
Some recent problems raise questions about how professionally the company is being managed at the moment. Examples that come to mind are:

i) Why did our opera season start with musical and not an opera? An opening night Gala should be an important event in the life of an opera company, its chorus and orchestra. It is also potentially a major fund raiser. This was denied our company this year. This was an artistic decision that many long term subscribers were not happy with.

ii) Why did Orlando start at 7pm and finish at 9.35pm? And why were audiences not informed the reason at the time? Also, why did the advertised and seriously promoted conductor Mr Pinnock not conduct? Why was the audience not informed of these facts and given some reasons at the time? This seems to be the result of last minute decision making and a disregard for inconvenience to subscribers.

iii) Why was Mr Kanen Breen given the roles of Cassio and Arturo recently. He is a comprimario artist. In these two roles he was well out of his fach which is bad for him and bad for the audience. It was most disappointing to learn that the understudy for Edgardo has sung the role of Arturo and would have made an ideal cast member (and probably cost very little to use). Putting Ms Nikolic in the role of Amneris next year is highly questionable when there are more appropriate Australians to do the part. Also, Mr Carbo is obviously inappropriate for the role of Don Alfonso. He should be Guglielmo. These are just a few recent examples of poor or even outlandish casting decisions.

iv) The argument that the company is currently making a profit provides evidence that some of this surplus could have been used to employ at least one top line artist over the past year. There is an argument that this would have resulted in more ticket sales for at least one opera and possibly more subscription sales, further improving the profit line. The drawcard of the Sydney Opera House has proven irresistible to many great artists in the past. Has the OA been on contact with any agents for the great artists of our time such as Fleming, Florez, Hvorostovsky, Blythe, Licitra, Alagna, Georgiou, Netrebko, Dessay, Voigt, Pons, Villazon, Boccelli, Theorin, Pape, Westerbroek, d’Intino, de Niesse, etc?

Many of the “great performances” of recent years have been from artists who will not be singing for much longer (e.g. Connell, O’Neill, Summers, Kenny). The company needs a source of inspiration and that can best come from those with world class reputations.

v) There are many Australian singers currently overseas who should be given the opportunity of working with their national company. For example, why have we not heard Maria Pollicina, one of the best Australian singers of her generation in my view? Could it be that the management is reluctant to showcase singers with true operatic sized voices?

I hope that the board will review what is happening under its stewardship and see to it that there is quality opera in Australia instead of the current creeping mediocrity.

09 September, 2008

Billy Budd opening Wed 24th September. Sydney Opera House.

Dear Colleagues,

This Gala opening demonstrated the best and worst features of Australia’s national opera company.

The performance was exemplary by any standards, including four artists of major international reputation (Tahu Rhodes, Hickox, Armfield and Philip Langridge). Almost their equal in world repute and rising to the operatic occasion were local talents Conal Coad and John Wegner. With more than adequate supporting singers, this was probably the highest standard cast seen in Australia for any opera in a very long time. It is a shame, even a crime, that it was not filmed and broadcast to high definition cinemas around the world for those who enjoy Benjamin Britten’s works. I am personally not a Britten fan but clearly his works are considered masterpieces by the experts.

Billy Budd is a handsome, free-thinking rating who is first lauded then set-up, accused, tried and hanged for mutiny on board an English warship circa 1800. Speculation about gay love, jealousy, morals and Christian themes seem to have taken on a life of their own, well beyond the rather clunky libretto in my view. This production uses an enormous revolving rectangular stage-upon-a-stage. This in turn has two levels, rising hydraulically at limitless angles to create the sense of a ship’s decks in many situations. It moved flawlessly and slow enough not to cause sea sickness.

Despite all of these positive factors, the opera hall was poorly patronised. The back three rows of the stalls and rear 7 rows of the circle had nary a seat filled. The rest of the hall was patchy and after intermission it was even worse.

It is disappointing and demoralising for artists to perform to unfilled houses … so what went wrong? Why is a modern English masterpiece ignored by the Sydney audience, despite a world-class cast? Is seven performances an excessive number? There were 20 or more Carmens and Bohemes this year, but these are for a different ‘mass’ audience. Billy Budd is a 20th century opera with a limited appeal to the average opera-goer. I call it a connoisseur’s opera.

From an artistic standpoint, all companies should occasionally do this sort of work, even though hard, cold economics might argue against it (and one would do My Fair Lady year-round). Yet the decision to do two such operas concurrently is highly questionable. Makropoulos Case is also conducted by Richard Hickox. This is another 20th century ‘boutique’ opera with 6 scheduled performances before an unscheduled return of La Boheme with a ‘house’ cast.

After all the recent adverse publicity on nepotism I was surprised to see the Hickox family name in not one but three places in the program. One hopes that all cast members had open auditions for their roles in this opera to ensure standards and equity for artists.

It is disappointing that Maestro Hickox was overseas the first four operas of this main Sydney season and that he leaves before the end of it (Stephen Mould conducts the final two performances of Makropoulos Case). I understand that Mr Hickox was not even present for the announcement of the new season for 2009. His avowed commitment to Australia would currently seem to be limited to little more than 7 weeks at a time.

2009 promises more of the same with a recycling of some good ‘stable’ singers but without as many of the world’s top artists as in previous seasons. It is the presence of such stars which can ignite that spark where good opera can rise above the ordinary and create emotive and memorable art. Just like films and football, opera needs its stars to rise above the ordinary. A cursory look at any month’s roster from 1990 to 2004 will show numerous ‘greats’. I just pulled out winter of 2000 to find Hagegard, Cole, Prokina, Sylvester, Rootering, Tahu Rhodes, Coad, Ransom, Shelton, Summers, Fritzsch, Auguin, Young. Our local resident ‘stars’ were also of a higher standard than today: Carden, Shanks, Allman, Cillario, etc. It is depressing to think of the decline in numbers of such stars appearing in recent years and this is one of the major criticisms I have of the company. Ten years ago it was rare to have a performance without at least one international ‘star’. Now it happens all the time.

“Life amplified”? Small deal, perhaps, but it is another embarrassment that the company is still using this slogan on its advertising material. Amplification is anathema to grand opera and the slogan should be changed. Why does a quality opera company need a slogan anyway?

Some more good news is that the problem only needs minor adjustments to fix it. We have a good orchestra (although the brass section made some frightful noises at the Billy Budd opening) and chorus. We have the world’s best known opera house. The management needs to get onto the world’s top agents to secure the (expensive) services of some of the top 50 opera singers (their names are no secret) to slot into 2009 season if at all possible, but certainly for 2010 if the company is to survive as a serious purveyor of good opera. And they need to audition local singers fairly and put them on 5 year contracts, just like the management.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Pedestrian Pearlfishers at Sydney Opera House.

The Pearlfishers. Georges Bizet. Sydney Opera House. Thursday, 4th September 2008

Zurga - Michael Lewis
Nadir - Henry Choo
Leila - Leanne Keneally
Nourabad - Shane Lawrencev
Conductor - Emmanuel Joel-Hornak
Director Ann-Margaret Pettersson
Sets - John Conkin

Dear Colleagues,
This Pearlfishers opening was passing pedestrian, never quite reaching ignition temperature in my view. In this engaging and original production Zurga is a British officer, living a flash-back.

Michael Lewis, an artist I admire enormously, seemed to be at his vocal limits on two occasions in the first act, yet his confident professionalism shone through. He is a veteran of three seasons since 2000 but by now the age difference with his on-stage tenor rival is showing.

Henry Choo managed the difficult tessitura of Nadir and his sense of drama made the role ‘work’.

Ms Kenneally also sang competently, even beautifully at times. She was ‘believable’, which is saying something in opera!

Shane Lawrencev played a fine Norabad.

Emmanuel Joel-Hornak conducts the present run - a lot of good music came from the Opera and Ballet orchestra. The chorus was also first rate.

The principal vocal performances would all have been considered grand as understudies but on the night, none really had that ‘star’ quality which is so easy to recognise but so hard to define. The ‘wow’ factor. It seems that Australian audiences are no longer offered ‘stars’ as often as we were in the past.

On looking at the last two outings of this opera in Sydney in my own diary I note further evidence of the depressing decline in standards of the opera company. Last time we heard up-and-coming American tenor Eric Cutler and previously David Miller as Nadir. The former went on the greater things (Chicago Lyric, Covent Garden, the Met, etc) and a recent guest return to Sydney. The latter joined the highly successful international ‘cross-over’ group Il Divo. Past conductors Patrick Summers and Richard Bonynge are both of vast international renown. This is not to denigrate any of the participants in the current 2008 run, but it reflects the company’s current policies of scaling back on international-quality guest artists.

Mr Joel-Hornak has a handsome conducting CV, making one or two fewer international-class artists in the opera on this occasion. The world of opera is a small one and dependable tenors are probably the rarest artists in practice.

The Sydney auditorium on Thursday was far from full with rear rows and side boxes all near empty, making it a marketing disaster. And it is bad for the performers too. Why were these seats not given to students, donors, ‘frequent flyers’ or others? Also bad for performers, I note that including the dress rehearsal, there will have been three performances within 5 days this week, a punishing schedule for any principal singer. The same happens later in the season with a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (matinee) marathon for the company. It seems that the bottom line is more important than caring for voices which normally requires at least two rest days between “big-sings”.

The opening night audience showed its satisfaction with a large ovation. This is gratifying, especially at a time when subscriptions are being renewed. However, as Nellie Melba knew, this does not prove much about technical and artistic standards (“Sing ‘em muck, it’s all they understand” she once wrote of the Australian audience). Yet one should never underestimate an audience, especially when so many in it could recall the heady ‘Sutherland years’.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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Sydney opera review 1928

29 August, 2008

Lunicidal Lucia mid-season. Show saved by Pacific tenor.

Lucia di Lammermoor. Sydney Opera House, Wed 27 August 2008

I don’t often do mid-season reviews, but this performance was notable, albeit in adversity. Eric Cultler as Edgardo was indisposed with a winter virus and new Kiwi/Islander tenor Benjamin Makisi took the role.

He is a substantial man with a substantial talent. He is an imposing figure on stage, also being quite tall. He has singular big-eyed good looks, being of Samoan and Tongan ancestry we were informed in the notes supplied. His voice is silky and even up the register with a ringing top which he only ‘let rip’ momentarily once towards the end of the first act duet with Ms Matthews, possibly touching a high C or even E flat. He takes centre-stage in the Act III Scene 2 cemetery scene, and he did not disappoint. Right at the end as he stabs himself a loose-fitting wig was saved by a quick wit. And he did all this without a central prompter - this was one role for which Sutherland did NOT need a prompter ... and the original classic John Copley production was in the Concert Hall.

I do not understand why Mr Makisi was not being used for the role of Arturo. Kanan Breen struggles valiantly as he did with the Cassio character recently. Such roles are clearly inappropriate for his voice, and there are more suited singers like Mr Makisi on the payroll just waiting ‘in the wings’. I note that Mr Makisi is not on the company web-site. Good tenors are so rare that this stellar performance should surely be recognised as Mr Makisi’s ‘big break’.

Jose Carbo sang and acted superbly as Enrico, the ambitious brother. His first act aria and cabaletta were breathtaking. He has a way of dramatic ‘freeze-framing’ which makes each movement or expression, when it comes, all the more meaningful.

Emma Matthews has come into her own as Lucia under Richard Bonynge’s baton. Her mad scene was a tour-de-force the likes of which we have not seen or heard since the Sutherland days. In some respects she was better, even with a smaller voice. While she ‘copies’ the Sutherland vocals closely, she plays a quite different Lucia dramatically. She is more a character of ‘pity’ than of fear and lunacy which Sutherland played. And this is appropriate as she is only half the size. Her terminal high notes were accurately placed, beautiful in quality and as long as I have ever heard - and yet were still tasteful. Her final limp-fall collapse down the central stairs was spectacular and her performance received a (partial) standing ovation.

The management of any organisation involves the making of large numbers of decisions, each ultimately aimed at the same thing, maintenance of standards and possibly improving them. So, while management should be congratulated on retaining Mr Makisi, one wonders about many other decisions.

The current media debate about artistic standards is one that has to be had. With so many participants having vested interests one way or the other, an independent review is what is needed in my view. The contrast could not be more stark between previous periods’ high profile artists (Botha, Connell, Schorg, Mitchell, McIntyre, Cole, Tsau, Marton, Vaness, Glossop, Milnes, Tourangeau, Horne, Pavarotti, Te Kanawa, Loringar, Resnick and Marenzi) and recent promises (Meirion, Berkeley Steele, Todd-Simpson, Owens and other less-than-satisfactory encounters). Certain other notable overseas artists came for less popular ‘connoisseur’ operas, and were thus not heard by many regular subscribers. Something has to “give”.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

21 August, 2008

Orlando - Handel. Sydney Opera House. Monday 18th August 2008

Dear Colleagues,

This Monday night Gala demonstrated some serious points raised in the media in recent days. There is just nobody in charge of this ship and there are doubts as to her seaworthiness to my mind. The seven o’clock starting time was obviously a blunder as the opera had been pared down by 50 minutes, thus ending at 9.35pm, an early night indeed! I don’t think this is Handel’s greatest work - at least as it is presented here. That the second night is on Wednesday is also a serious deviation from long-time theatrical rules where 2 rest days are normally allowed between opera performances.

Handel wrote highly inspired and memorable operatic scenes as well as a lot of his own original orchestral and vocal continuo some might term “wall-paper”. Orlando seems to have more of the latter than the former, starting out with a ‘skipping-time’ overture. It might seem unfair to the singers who each had difficult vocals … yet none reached the heights of his immortal pieces like “Lascia, io piango” (Rinaldo), “Ombra mai fu” (Xerxes) or “V'adoro, pupille” (Julius Caesar), “Iris hence”; “Sleep why dost”, “Where ere you walk” (Semele, his last opera), not to mention “Tornami a vagghegia” (Alcina). While Orlando’s ‘mad scene’ is a most spectacular aria technically, it does not have the invention of melody, phrasing and custom ‘pauses’ of any of the above to my ear. The opera is certainly an interesting piece of musical archaeology … and it may even be a truly great opera in its original form - the Sydney audience may never know. Apparently it only received 10 performances in 1733 and was not revived until 1959.

There was no regular brass section in this baroque orchestra (two horns appeared at intervals). There was no chorus. There is no part for solo tenor or baritone voice in this opera. Orlando was clearly written as a show-piece for the male divo yet this production uses a contralto, Sonia Prina for the hero. The soldier Medoro is sung by Tobias Cole in falsetto range, a role originally written for mezzo-soprano according to Wikipedia. Dressed convincingly as a man, Ms Prina’s mid-range coloratura was indeed phenomenal and one wonders what other vocal music of hers was omitted in the savage cuts. It is unlikely to be 50 minutes of da capo repeats but it is hard to believe that there was anything ‘too difficult’ for Ms Prina either. Rachel Durkin sang ‘regally’ throughout as Angelica but without raising any goose bumps on this listener’s old flesh.

Richard Alexander seems miscast in the ghost role, not showing his substantial talents in their best light. Some of the lowest notes were just not in the voice. This ‘Sarastro’ type role needs a bigger, deeper basso profundo voice, especially when he is the only character who is not some sort of soprano. Hye Seoung Kwon seemed under-powered and retiring as the shepherdess. One wonders who is making these odd casting decisions or are they just distant copies of others’ decisions elsewhere (Salzburg Festival, for instance).

The opera opens in a war office with a writing desk, table lamp, globe of the world and large wall map. The next scene saw the entire set replaced by the wall map, hugely enlarged. This then broke into columns, openings and walls at various depths to create and interesting and diverse setting for progress of the story. The confusing, cross-gender dramatis personae all taking cupid’s aim for each other was incorporated into a quirky and charming production. Orlando was dressed in a beautiful tan coloured leather suit. He/she suddenly fainted to the floor in the first scene creating dramatic tension from the very start … as well as creating a flaw in the great general’s persona. The direction by Justin Way was sympathetic and original with just enough of the unexpected.

Because of the shepherd connection, there were models of sheep on stage throughout the opera. The cute idea became laboured when they started to multiply and fly, as if to ignite some distant Greek cauldron! At one stage the text promised goats but these did not materialise, mercifully. At one point there were ‘stars above’ which must have been designed by some deprived city soul who had never actually seen the sky at night and how beautiful it actually is. The last act featured a massively enlarged electric lamp pointing our way … then a miniature of the original setting … all very clever if not entirely original (Hansel and Gretal) nor particularly meaningful. Fantasy is fun, but an opera is opera - and that means voice and melody.

Singing is all around us in our daily lives … but grand opera is the Olympics of singing. It is the loudest, highest, finest and most original performers who should win out and be heard again. We often see operas in concert ... but even with the cleverest production, we never see opera dramas without singing! The first job of an opera singer is to be heard up the back. If that voice is still beautiful and expressive, this is a measure of success. Not all of the singers in Orlando fitted this category. If management either sat up the back more often themselves or else interviewed subscribers who do, we may have less criticism and more logical decisions on repertoire and who should sing it.

Our brochure promised ‘early music specialist’ Trevor Pinnock as conductor. There was no explanation given on the night that maestro was Paul Goodwin who is not even on the company’s web site. He led the small, specialist orchestra proficiently. I wondered if he was responsible for all the cuts or if it was a joint vivisection.

For me, Orlando remains a city in Florida. This Monday evening Opera Gala was not an auspicious event and fault must be sheeted back to management. Musical director, Richard Hickox has not been sighted for months, which is a fault.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

01 August, 2008

Sydney Lucia success. Sutherland's costumes severely cut-down!

Lucia di Lammermoor. Sydney Opera House, Wed 30th July 2008

This Lucia opening was a splendid affair. John Copley knows how to present opera while Bardon’s sets and Stennett’s costumes are classics. Such a production should be treated as history lesson for modern directors, every aspect enhancing the story line while never impeding the singing which is what an opera audience wants above all else. Nothing in the production draws attention to the director which cannot be said of many modern productions. This production was originated for Joan Sutherland to be done in the Concert Hall before being re-sized for the Opera Hall. This run is being conducted by Richard Bonynge, just like the original, proving his artistic longevity.

Emma Matthews is ready for this role. While her voice has little in common with that of Joan Sutherland, it is a role in which Matthews plays her own particular bride of Lammermoor. She can afford to be more energetic on stage, especially during her mad scene from crouching to lying on the ground and spinning, sautéing, collapsing, etc. Likewise, her vocal acrobatics were extraordinary, only once briefly departing from good taste in a duet. She used virtually all of the ‘Sutherland’ ornaments with great style and accuracy. Full throated high E flats ended the fountain cabaletta as well as the two third act show-pieces. With a tall, handsome tenor they made the perfect, if tragic couple.

Jose Carbo was an excellent Enrico, putting in all the baritone flourishes with his usual flair. Happily, the Wolf Crag scene was included, allowing us to hear this rare gem of the male duet repertory. In many ways Carbo was the star of the night.

American Eric Cutler returned to Australia and was a creditable Edgardo. He has a pleasant vocal timbre with a strong projection and fine dramatic sense. His cemetery scene was vocally engaging as it was devastating dramatically.

Basso Richard Anderson has a large range, singing the tutor’s role more youthfully, but with a plunging richness to his low notes.

The support singers were not up to the high standard of the main roles. The company used to employ over 100 solo singers but now has only a small group of ‘favourites’ of varying competence doing small roles. Some of the problem may be casting while some may be nerves on opening night. These roles should usually be done by young singers ‘on the way up’ in my view. Sutherland played Clotilde, the maid, long before she played Norma.

As I often state, we are privileged to have such a professional orchestra and chorus and neither let the side down (if we ignore the very first note of the opera, ‘fluffed’ by the horns).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Surgery web page:

Opera blog:

New York in 2008:

New York in 1922:

Travel log:

24 July, 2008

Full blooded Otello at Sydney Opera House: Friday 18th July 2008.

Otello by Verdi. Sydney Opera House Friday 18th July 2008

At last the opera company has managed a smash hit, full blooded opera after two near misses. The revival of Harry Kupfer’s stair-mounted production of Otello was well received by a discerning Sydney public.

The best thing about Otello was the title role. Dennis O’Neill sang splendidly in the relentless tale of his undoing. His ‘Esultate’ was ringing and focussed, as were ‘Si pel ciel’ (with Summers), ‘Ora e per sempre, addio’ and the death scene. He was indeed the Venetian Lion!

Jonathan Summers has all it takes for the role of Iago, vocally and dramatically. He bounded around the stage like someone half his years and the voice was responsive across the wide range required. The challenging drinking song in Act 1 was energetic and proficient, its high notes rolling off perfectly. His ‘credo’ was solid. He made an entirely credible ‘mean machine’.

Cheryl Barker has a fine middle voice, however, she can tend to sound ‘plum in the mouth’ or nasal when outside this range. Few however could complain at her sympathetic portrayal of Desdemona which is well crafted, making her captivating yet vulnerable. Her ‘Willow song’ and Ave Maria following were poised and beautiful.

Kupfer’s modern production has all 4 acts dominated by a massive ‘face-on’ staircase, the right quarter of which has been ‘bombed out’ (there are even circular remnants of the damaged ceiling above). Two strips of richly patterned carpet intersect at right angles with a massive Atlas-holding-the-world statue half way up the relentless bank of stairs. Atop are half a dozen double louvre doors leading to a vertiginous veranda. Much of the action takes place on the steps themselves, making it very awkward for the singers. Only the distant upper landing, narrow strip near the footlights and a mere gap to the left are available for normal performing. The latter is all we have to resemble a bedroom for Act 4.

Kupfer has the chorus rush from the upper level at the first roaring notes of the opera to populate the stairs like a wave rushes up a beach. It is very effective dramatically yet an occupational safety officer may have some objections. The staircase might not pass muster under today’s building codes, having 20 steep, uninterrupted steps. I was told that the rear ‘stage’ stairs are even more perilous.

Kanen Breen managed the role of Cassio but it is not his ideal part (his Hoffmann characters were marvellous). On the other hand, Stephen Bennett, a one-time very fine Leporello for this company was performing the relatively small role of Montano. Jacqueline Dark again played a credible Emilia, the composite role of Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. She and Mr Summers were in the original 2003 production featuring Frank Poretta conducted by Simone Young. The latter happened to be in the opening night audience along with lots of other dignitaries in town for the Catholic festivities and Pope’s visit. I was surprised that we still have not seen musical director Mr Richard Hickox so far this season.

The orchestra under Simon Hewett was equal to the enormous demands of this complex work. The fortissimi and pianissimi were most marked. From this performance, I find it hard to imagine a better sound coming from an improved pit design, although any measure to reduce aural damage in orchestra members is to be encouraged.

The opera company chorus also did a superb job, dealing with difficult demands vocally - not to mention the dangerous stage work.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

19 July, 2008

Don Giovanni at the Sydney Opera House 5th July 2008

Don Giovanni at the Sydney Opera House. 7.30pm Saturday 5th July, 2008. Beautiful singing, unsympathetic production.

Gala opening of new production by Elke Neidhardt, designs by Michael Scott-Mitchell. “Bathing machines are 'in', "Il mio tesoro" is out!”

Dear Colleagues,
During the overture we were confronted with a huge hanging digital sign flashing numerals from 4000 down towards zero along with images, strokes and hurdy gerdy effects interposed across the stage. Like much of what occurred later, there seemed no rhyme or reason to this neon wizardry.

We were then led through the evil, small-town narrative of Don Giovanni … on this occasion with no recognisable town, no villa, no balcony, no furnishings, no decor, no Spanish streetscape for Elvira to get lost in as well as for the Don to be chased through.

The set was dominated by ugly ‘floating’ black and white triangles bearing the enlarged images of burnt tree-trunks. They were manoeuvred awkwardly on hydraulic rams and might better have been simply suspended from the flies without all the fuss. Numerous other angular illuminated shapes appeared and disappeared to little purpose until some were spray-painted by the Don who turned his hand to graffiti, as if the libretto did not give him enough bad behaviour.

These triangles framed rows of black and grey ‘lavatories’ in various guises used as hidey holes, entrances and exits. It was not clear why the Don had to take a shower on stage in the middle of the action unless it was to draw attention to the director. The nudity warning was spurious and probably a publicity stunt as there was simply no nudity on stage … unless you count an indistinct image through frosted glass.

This ugly and unsympathetic production displayed both lavish expense as well as economy. There was no statue of the Commendatore, no carriage (or limo) for Donna Elvira, and only a gap in the set for the famous serenade, ‘Deh vieni a la finestra’ (which was beautifully sung). The perspex chair and table for the Don’s ‘dinner with death’ were hardly original and the folding garden chairs demonstrate the company’s commitment to recycling. Not one scene brought a vista of any beauty to the eye. Does somebody think that Mozart’s music is so beautiful that it needs to be balanced by unsightliness on stage?

There seemed no unifying idea to the production and little to commend it overall. There were frequent crude sexual references, some just a little smutty, others grossly “out there”, such as groping episodes and Donna Elvira being wheeled around the stage with legs wedged apart, seated on a small tray-mobile.

The singing was from adequate to splendid. The two baritones excelled, starting with Joshua Bloom as Leporello. He ‘rabbited’ his way through this glorious ‘gift’ of a role with humour and poise. His voice is large and focussed with a velvet timbre, smooth and even throughout the range.

Hungarian Mr Gabor Bretz looked and sounded the full Don. He acted creditably and has a pleasant, imposing voice. Apart from the baritone roles of Massetto, Leporello and Ruggiero (La Juive), I note that he has also sung the bass roles of Fiesco, Rocco and The Grand Inquisitor.

Catherine Carby played Donna Elvira well but may have been slightly uncomfortable on the highest notes. I do not know if she is a mezzo or a soprano now. ‘Mi tradi’ was taken at a cracking pace, almost too fast for the singer, composer and audience. But at least the aria was heard, unlike previous Sydney performances in which they left out both Dalla sua pace and Mi tradi for supposed ‘historical’ reasons. This production leaves out both Il mio tesoro and the epilogue. One wondered if Mr Henry Choo was unable or unwilling to sing the more difficult aria, although he sang Dalla sua pace quite liltingly. I am not aware of any performances of Don Giovanni (with the exception of Mozart’s first season) from which Il mio tesoro has been omitted. There would be a good legal case for a refund in my view as this was not ‘goods as advertised’.

Rachel Durkin was a reliable Donna Anna. There was some sharpness to her voice but she presented a dignified and consistent character.

Amy Wilkinson and Richard Anderson were a fine young wedding couple.

It was reported in the weekend press that conductor Richard Hickox withdrew ‘due to European commitments which were brought forward’ which did not make sense to me. This is a fault and is most disappointing in someone who aspires to be a serious musical director of a serious opera company. Nevertheless, we had young Russian/American conductor Mikhail Agrest who did agreeable things on the podium.

This opening night was an abysmal failure from my perspective. I would prefer to see a concert version of an opera than sit through this post-modernist Euro mish-mash.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

New York in 2008:

New York in 1922:

Travel log:

07 May, 2008

My Fair Lady - is this appropriate for an Opera Gala Opening?

My Fair Lady - Sydney Opera House 7.30pm Saturday 22nd June 2008. Gala Season Opening.

Despite being an artistic success, in some respects this was an acutely embarrassing event, sadly reflecting the current management's lack of commitment to opera, singers and their traditional audience. They continue to chase the theatrical dollar rather than respecting the art form their organisation is named for. Nobody minds some lighter pieces and the company does musicals and G&S as well as anyone. Yet this is an opera company and we paid for opera tickets and we deserve an opera for our season opening! It would be like going to the tennis and being told there would only be basketball playing! Enough of that.

Reg Livermore successfully played Henry Higgins, a character perhaps half his own age. I heard complaints that he sang too much while others said he sang too little, so he probably got the balance right! While no opera singer, his singing voice is quite pleasant, if a little nasal at times. His quip and quiddity on stage are superlative where he is the true professional. So too was his mother, Misses Higgins, played by another veteran, Nancye Hayes who was hilarious.
Eliza was Taryn Fiebig, a trained opera singer who, like everybody else, was seriously amplified. She played this ‘gift’ part beautifully including the accents. She was sensitive, vulnerable and yet self confident and independent by the end - with its ambiguous dénouement.
Colonel Pickering was played by Rhys McConnochie; Alfred Doolittle by Robert Grubb; Mrs Pearce by Adele Johnston. All the main and supporting roles were excellent. The chorus was also in fine form.

The production is original and engaging with a revolve to allow immediate scene changes. Clever detail allowed a glance at patrons inside the pub before it rotated further to become a street frontage where we heard some of the many pot-boilers of the score. The costumes were splendid, especially the Royal Ascot ladies in their grey, black and coral outfits with some extraordinary and enormous hats. Costumes by Roger Kirk, sets Richard Roberts, direction Stuart Maunder.

The two scenes in the Higgins residence in Wimpole Street were brilliantly created. We heard ‘The rain in Spain’ in the comfortable gentleman’s studio while the stunning entrance of the transformed Eliza (and her disappearance later on) occurred in an elegant entrance hall and stairway.

The orchestra played well under maestro Andrew Greene. The audience was appreciative and obligingly clapped along with the rum-tee-tum strains accompanying the curtain calls. The best performance, however, may have been the glorious full moon which rose 15 minutes before the show, clearly visible from the balcony, foyer and eastern walkways of the Opera House.
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Travel log:

Salute to the life of John Cargher.

Mr John Cargher 1919-2008

Australia has lost a great musical ambassador with the death of John Cargher on Wednesday 30 April 2008 at his home in Melbourne aged 89. He was a self-taught expert and critic on voices, composers, opera and classical music generally. His 'Singers of Renown' has been a Saturday afternoon fixture on ABC Radio for forty two years. I listened avidly to his broadcasts whenever I could and they often raised discussions between family and friends.

I only knew John from his occasional outings to the opera in Sydney and from numerous email exchanges. Many in Melbourne knew John personally from his involvement in record stores and theatrical exploits from 1951 when he arrived from London. Yet it was his broadcasting which took his softly spoken European accent and his personality into homes across Australia and beyond. His father Jacob was a rabbinical student in London where John was born. He was raised in Germany and Spain due to the illness and early death of his German mother. John then returned to London as a teenager to learn a trade and also attend operas and concerts in cheap seats.

John’s choice of items was always novel as were his eclectic commentaries between them. Even many non-opera people know John's signature tune, the 'nostalgia' duet from Il Tabarro with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi. This glorious and previously obscure piece of soaring Puccini is now probably the most often broadcast opera excerpt in the world after more than 2000 programs. Dame Joan Hammond also popularised a famous aria from this Puccini Trittico masterpiece "Oh mio babino caro".

Even up to recent weeks John was still making his pre-recorded weekly broadcasts, despite some repeats due to illness. On the week of his death the ABC replayed a program from the 1990s featuring Verdi’s opera Ernani with excerpts from the 78 era to the present day. While personally favouring the great baritone arias, he played a vastly varied selection from the last castrato to strained falsettos and booming basses. My own favourite ‘oddities’ were the delightfully drunk soprano song, the famous pussy-cat duet "Miaou" and the tone-deaf Florence Foster Jenkins. He avoided the temptation to showcase Callas, Sutherland and Pavarotti who he played infrequently. Other century greats he played included Gigli, Tucker, Di Stefano, Schmit, Warren, dal Monti, Ponselle, Muzio and Caruso. His historical notes often included how the Second World War affected careers and lives of individuals. He often mentioned the cantorial tradition and occasionally mentioned his Jewish roots.

John Cargher wrote numerous books popularising classical music and he was made a member of the Order of Australia for his services to music and the theatre. His wry wit, profound knowledge and occasional exposed mistake will always be remembered by this listener. Rest in peace. May his passing inspire others to such heights. He leaves his second wife, Robyn Walton and daughter Penelope.

[Written by Sydney addictions physician and opera critic Andrew Byrne]

Fille du Regiment - Note cinema broadcasts of this production.

La Fille du Regiment. Donizetti. Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Monday 21st April 2008 - opening night.

Juan Diego Florez - Tonio
Natalie Dessay - Marie
Alessandro Corbelli - Suplice (Sergeant Major)
Felicity Palmer - Marquise de Berkenfield
Marian Seldes - Duchess of Krackenthorp (acting role)
Conductor - Marco Armiliato
Production - Laurent Pelly
Sets - Chantal Thomas

Dear Colleagues,

In a French-inspired ‘geographic’ alpine production coming via London and Vienna this opera was raised from the relatively superficial to a level equal to anything the Met has done in my experience. The set flooring was made up of five or more overlapped maps of central Europe. Three corners peaked behind as if real mountains while one corner draped naturalistically into the orchestra pit. We had heard from the designer in the introduction that the military were the origin of all maps, obviously for strategic purposes.

Following the plot in which the alpine village is defending itself against the enemy, this extraordinary production opens with a blockade across the entire Met stage. The barrage consisted of furniture, wheeled carts, lumber, garden equipment, bric-a-brac and other household goods, all piled against each other. Most amusingly, a curtained wardrobe in the middle became the temporary refuge for the all-too-sensitive Marquise before it was wheeled off as her unceremonious exit. The next scene sees Marie doing the washing and ironing with bunks set up as a deserted army camp in the open.

Tonio’s arrival caused great mayhem as he was an outsider who had caught the eye of the Regiment’s daring, Marie who was already ‘promised’ to a company soldier when she was old enough. We were told in song that Tonio had risked his life to save Marie from falling to her death while picking flowers. A rare encore was performed by Mr Florez in his famous aria (‘Ah mes amis … Pour mon âme’). This turned the already incredible 9 high C’s into 18. And none was clipped or insubstantial. And most were on ‘the terrible vowel’, ‘a’ (ame, and flame). There was some banter between conductor and tenor during the initial applause and finally the bis was indicated on the conductor’s fingers. A colossal effort! Florez then received one of the few spontaneous standing ovations I have seen at the Met. A friend said it was the only spontaneous standing ovation he had seen in over 50 years of Met openings.

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez is the darling of the opera world at present and has gone from strength to strength on the world stage adding Olympic-type records to his repertoire. These include the extra scene in Barbiere di Siviglia (others have attempted it but few succeeded so comprehensively). On this Met Gala he sang, danced and acted his way into the hearts (and pockets) of the elite of New York, many of whom had paid well over five hundred dollars for dinner, supper and premium tickets. His act 2 pleading aria was taken as slowly as I have heard it – moving, legato and effective dramatically, quite the opposite of the ‘rapid-fire’ act 1 aria with all the high C’s. Yet both speak of his love for Marie in different company and for different reasons. Both are successful.

Florez was in good company with the quirky and beautiful Natalie Dessay who did a captivating if unusual Lucia recently to great acclaim. In ‘Fille’, she took dramatic control initially as a coquettish tomboy, but revealed the most feminine of attributes in her performance. She took her time. At one point she mumbled incoherently for an age on stage, making a funny skit funnier. She bounced gracefully all over the stage and was carried aloft more than once for her phenomenally difficult cadenzas. Singing a high E flat while being carried aloft must be unique. Dessay’s ‘Il faut partir’ was dramatically moving and vocally flawless.

Both lovers were aided by a fine natural comedian, Alessandro Corbelli as Suplice who ends up marrying the Marquise. He had sung Gianni Schicchi last year with great acclaim. Well known Broadway actress Marian Seldes played the Duchess of Krackenthorp with great aplomb. She partnered Angela Lansbury in Deuce last year.

Act two took place on the same set but with an entire ballroom floor positioned diagonally across the stage. It was wedged up from the existing stage floor with (you-guessed-it) rolled up maps! The formal entrance, windows, pictures, fireplace and servants’ door were all hollow black frames. Stage left was a grand piano used for the famous singing lesson scene - and actually played by Ms Palmer as she coached Marie in a genteel song which always seemed to have a rhythmic, regimental second subject. The Met chorus made up a brilliant band of soldiers (see photographs of uniform on web site) and in the second act a ludicrous bunch of geriatric invitees for the arranged marriage (initially minus groom, then minus bride as well!).

This clever production contained more small comic details than one could possibly write about in a review. At one point early in the opera the townsfolk sing to the Madonna to save them from the advancing enemy. Momentarily the haughty Marquise thinks they are singing to her! The soldiers’ rescue comes in the form of a mechanised army tank rolling onto stage right, machinery sound effects and all! Tonio sang atop the tank as if in a war zone. While the French dialogue had been rewritten it all seemed perfectly attuned to the story. Also, it occasionally broke into English, each time to comic effect.

At the end there was a phenomenal ovation. The crowds screamed for Mr Florez and his paramour. Each time they took a bow it sounded like the stadium crowd roaring over a winning goal.

This may be the most exciting opera performance I have seen since the Sutherland days. I wrote later that night on the internet that the notices should be on the FRONT pages of the papers - and I was right! [see New York Times 23 April]
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Review of Toti dal Monti in ‘Fille du Regiment’ in 1928:
Short review of Fille du Regiment Gala written on the night:
Review of Met Open Day and Rehearsal of Fille du Regiment.
Beverly Sills doing the final scene at The Daughter of the Regiment
Wolf Trap Festival 1974.
YouTube item from this production:

30 April, 2008

Edgar at Carnegie Hall.

Edgar - Puccini - 8pm Sun 13th April 2008 Carnegie Hall, Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY).

Dear Colleagues,

We were privileged to hear this excellent early opera of Maestro Puccini with a superb orchestra, chorus and principal singers. Eve Queller has reached 35 years in her remarkable campaign to bring rare works to the public at a high standard.

Mr Giordani in the title role was in spectacular form and took all the hard options successfully as in the final performances of Ernani at the Met recently. He is an artist who sometimes seems to sound better in the theatre than on broadcasts. Latonia Moore as Fidelia showed a magnificent crystal pure yet rich soprano to rapturous applause in an almost-full Carnegie Hall. Jennifer Larmore also sang extremely well but somehow never reached ‘goose bump’ level. As “Frank”, Stephen Gaertner’s baritone voice proved to be equal to anything. High, low, loud, soft he was expressive and effective. The adult chorus was magnificent while the Catholic school children’s chorus seemed rag-tag.

The work is a splendid opera, and far superior to many 20 century “operas” in my view. The story is certainly original and leads to plenty of dramatic situations including a resurrection on stage! It is balanced by some real corpses before the end. Like his early Messa there is melody, orchestral invention and balance. The arias are original and choruses fitting and exciting dramatically. There is hardly any melody reminiscent of his other works but perhaps some orchestration from Manon Lescaut to my hearing.

I hope a recording is released of this performance and that this opera is given its proper place in the repertoire of serious opera companies.

Andrew Byrne .. (Also seen/heard The Gambler; Fanciulla del West; Candide – notes on request).

22 April, 2008

La Fille du Regiment. Met magic this evening. Brief notes.

Donizetti. Metropolitan Opera New York City. Monday 21st April 2008.

Dear Colleagues,

This was indeed a night of nights. The company has pulled out all the stops and provided high class comic opera without rival. In a French-inspired ‘geographic’ alpine production coming via London and Vienna this opera was raised from the relatively superficial to a level equal to anything the Met has done in my experience. For one thing, a rare encore was performed by Mr Florez (‘Ah mes amis’). This turned the already incredible 9 high C’s into 18. And none was clipped or insubstantial. A colossal effort! He then received one of the few spontaneous standing ovations I have seen at the Met (a colleague said it was the only spontaneous standing ovation he had seen in over 50 years of Met openings).

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez is the darling of the opera world at present and has gone from strength to strength on the world stage adding Olympian records to his repertoire. These include the extra scene in Barbiere di Siviglia (others have attempted it but few succeeded so comprehensively). He sang, danced and acted his way into the hearts (and pockets) of the elite of New York, many of whom had paid over five hundred dollars for dinner, supper and premium tickets. His act 2 pleading aria was taken as slowly as I have heard it – moving, legato and effective dramatically, quite the opposite of the ‘rapid-fire’ act 1 aria with all the high C’s.

And he was in good company with the quirky and attractive Natalie Dessay as well as a fine natural comedy man, Alessandro Corbelli as Suplice the sergeant major. He sang Gianni Schicchi last year with great acclaim. Famous actress Marian Seldes played the Duchess of Crackenthorp with great aplomb. She was in Deuce last year with Angela Lansbury.

At the end there was a phenomenal ovation. The crowds screamed for Florez. Each time he took a bow it sounded like the stadium roaring over goals. This may be the most exciting opera performance I have seen since the Sutherland days.

It should be on the front pages of the papers, not buried in the entertainment section! [and it was!]

Andrew Byrne .. 1922 review of Toti dal Monti in the opera:

Fille du Regiment rehearsal Friday open-day' at the Met

Fille du Regiment rehearsal - Friday open-day at the Met. 11am Friday 18th April 2008

This was another successful demonstration of the Gelb Dynasty way of doing business at the Met. Following an advertisement in the New York Post, I called by phone (internet was unresponsive) at the appointed hour the previous Sunday, and eventually got thru after 20 minutes of trying. We secured two free tickets in the Grand Tier, as did our friends. We all did as we were told and arrived an hour early to view some displays in the main foyer involving costumes, house organisation, special effects, lighting, scenery painting and stage modelling. These displays were all original and interesting … remote controlled revolving spotlights, on-stage illuminated handbags for Macbeth, understudy’s costumes, flaming sword, stage models (‘maquette’ is the trade term I am told), smoke making machine, etc.

I asked each representative in turn about the worst disaster in their department - with some startling responses. The special effects man had designed an exploding book for the end of Faust but one night he accidentally stapled the wires together and it refused to ignite at the crucial time. This was highly embarrassing for the performer so a large ’grovel’ was called for.

The costume lady had a very sad tale involving the death on stage of Richard Versalle (January 1996 - Makropoulos Secret). They required a new costume for his understudy for the very next performance (it was not clear if this was due to the singer’s size, respect for the dead or if the original was damaged in resuscitation attempts). After two full days of sewing over a cold weekend, the next performance was also cancelled - this time due to a massive blizzard which shut down the entire US east coast.

I had two disasters recounted by the sets representative. The new Madama Butterfly design had a huge wall of dangling flowers which were rolled up after the first night. When unrolling them for the second performance it was found that they had all stuck together and it took a Herculean effort of every available pair of hands in the building to separate the mass of rolled up flowers, strand by strand to help get the disentanglement sorted before curtain time.

In another disaster there was a scrim across the stage in an opera which ripped right across as it was being taken out. Apparently these scrims have heavy balance weights on each side to stop them wrinkling but these obviously are meant to be removed before raising the delicate fabric. The weights were left in place on this occasion and the curtain predictably ripped right across its top section. As there was another performance in a few days’ time a careful sewing job was needed to first cut the break cleanly on both sides and then resuture the smooth edges with invisible thread in time. Fortunately there was only a small strip lost and enough spare to use the same scrim. A replacement at such short notice would not have been possible.

The sets person explained about the loss of an expensive stage model which had been left in a box which was taken accidentally for trash. These models can take two of three people a number of weeks to make up and so such a loss would have been a calamity. The box was on board the trash truck some blocks away from Lincoln Center before it was stopped and the model retrieved intact for posterity. One of these very models was on show representing the three overlaid maps making the set and three mountains behind the Fille du Regiment design.

It is not appropriate to comment on a rehearsal so suffice it to say that honour was satisfied and the Monday Gala opening should be a swish event mirroring the London success of this production with practically the same cast from a year or more ago.

After the performance the (exhausted) singers, actors, conductor and production team sat on the Act 2 set and were interviewed by Margaret Junthwaite. We were given lots of insights into geography (hint), comedy, acting, stagecraft and other matters.

All in all a real treat for us out-of-towners – and locals alike. I am very grateful for having been able to attend this splendid event. It has got to be good for public relations and would have cost the company little or nothing since there were some generous sponsors named who defrayed the additional expenses over a closed rehearsal.

Andrew Byrne ..
Travel log:

19 April, 2008

Masked Ball at the Met. April 19.

Saturday 19th April 2008

Ballo in Maschera. Metropolitan Opera, New York City.

King: Salvatore Licitra
Amelia: Angela Brown
Ulrica: Stephanie Blythe
Renato: Dmitry Hvorostovsky
Oscar: Ofelia Sala
cond: Gianandrea Noseda

Dear Colleagues,

Another marvellous Ballo outing at the Met. I have seen this production several times as well as its classic video with Pavarotti, Millo and Nucci. This evening had a dream cast of Salvatore Licitra, Angela Brown, Stephanie Blythe and Dmitry Hvorostovsky. Also, the Oscar of Ofelia Sala was a fine performance.

As the king, Mr Licitra was almost eclipsed by the finesse of the baritone and lead soprano. Both baritone arias were sung with such intense conviction that at times in Eri tu Hvorostovsky seemed to move out of the aria itself, taking pauses and extensions which, while not written (and could not reasonably have been written), were perfectly attuned to the character of the piece. He also interpolated some notes from the traditional versions. The conductor seemed to take some of the main arias very slowly, to great advantage with such fine artists.

Remarkably Ms Brown did a similar thing with her Act 3 aria Morro ma prima ingrazia with some incredibly beautiful phrasing at the end. I only recall hearing this effect once before with Sherril Milnes as papa Germont also here at the Met almost 20 years ago in Di provenza (and taken to an extreme on film with Jose van Damm at the end of Cortigiani). Neither Pavarotti nor Sutherland ever did this, at least not for me. I think the singer has to get wholly within the characterisation before doing this … and obviously needs to be in complete control vocally.
Despite being almost midnight, the acclaim at the end of Ballo, was rapturous. The production is over-the-top and final ball scene unbelievably detailed, large, colourful and yet still sympathetic to the story. It even has a ‘play within’ and its own on-stage audience.

This performance was well above the usual standard seen here (or anywhere). Two members of the Australian Opera were also in the audience and they were also impressed by proceedings. We noted, however, some minor pitching errors of the tenor and some repeated timing problems with the conductor. His musicality may not be quite as refined as his colleagues yet Mr Licitra has a formidable and beautiful instrument and being able to ‘deliver’ as well as or better than many others in his field.

The day before, we were treated to an ‘open-house’ at the Met, incorporating a dress rehearsal of the Fille du Regiment (see my web site for full details). Already I have received responses about each item posted on some enthusiast opera list-servers. Some replies are not for the faint-hearted. But at least a lot of people read one’s messages and any obvious mistakes are pointed out, sometimes politely, otherwise tersely, allowing me to live and learn while also enjoying the opera. This is a form of cheap and quick ‘peer-review’. One learns to ignore the rudeness as being insecurity of people who often have nothing better to do than ‘kvetch’. Sharing ‘diary notes’ publicly is all a matter of timing … too early and they are incomplete or inaccurate … too late and nobody is interested!

Best wishes to all from Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

12 April, 2008

Ernani - Verdi - Metropolitan Opera New York.

Thursday 10th April 2008 7.30pm.

Ernani - Marcello Giordani
Elvira - Sondra Radvanovsky
Don Carlo - Thomas Hampson
de Silva - Ferruccio Furlanetto
Conductor - Roberto Abbado

Dear Colleagues,

The Met web site calls this opera a ‘gem’ yet this is being kind. While it has some of the most magnificent arias and choruses, the story is a mish mash of not just unlikely but ludicrous events, underlined by the theme ‘a slave of duty’ like the Pirates of Penzance, but without the humour. Both hero (a bandit) and villain (a nobleman) are bound by such serious personal honour that they would die before allowing themselves even a minor transgression of “the gentleman’s code”. A suspicious suitor turns out to be the king incognito while a pilgrim who arrives at a wedding turns out to be a rival who nobody happens to recognise before allowing him into the castle for alms and refuge.

Two glorious scenes occur in the first 20 minutes and one wonders if there could be anything else (there is!). Ernani sings of his lost love and his henchmen sing of their devotion and willingness to fight to get her back. They are standing on and below a large curving stairway around what looks like an open-cut coal seam as their brigands’ hide-out. Next scene is Elvira’s ‘Surte e la notte’, ‘Ernani, Ernani involarmi’ and ‘Tutto sprezzo’. Sondra Radvanovsky sang superbly and took all the hard options. This takes place in a massive palace room where she is confined. Massive drapes on an unseen window are billowing in the breeze reminding us of the great outdoors she is longing for. She sings part of her scene sitting on a sofa on the right side and moves around the stage as her thoughts progress.

The tenor has a major challenge in Act 2. ‘Odi il voto o grande Iddio’ has elements of ‘Ah la paterna mano’ from Macbeth as well as hints at ‘Ah si ben mio’. Next Ernani launches into a chorus ending with a ‘Di quella pira’ style cabletta, ‘Sprezzo la vita, ne più m'alletta’ ending the act on a magnificent ‘high’ combining ‘vendetta’ and true love. Mr Giordani’s performance was exciting and accurate in the theatre.

This makes two choruses swearing allegiance to their leaders and it appears that the whole opera revolves around keeping one’s oath and observation gentleman’s accepted codes of conduct. Other more personal things such as self, family, king and country are all subordinate to the ‘codes’ espoused here. Even to the point of ‘honour suicide’ on demand on one’s wedding day.

Anyone in these roles now has the inevitable comparison with the Met DVD of this production (with Pavarotti, Milnes, Mitchell and Raimondi). In this, Milnes ends his Act 3 ‘Oh de verd’anni miei’ with an almost unbelievable, ringing high A flat, sustained for over 5 seconds, sending the audience wild.

Mr Hampson sang with conviction and confidence as King Carlos. In the act 3 aria’s conclusion he touched uneasily on a high G in an otherwise ringing and exciting performance, finishing (correctly) on the lower A flat.

Ferrucio Furlanetto was excellent as the nobleman de Silva. His voice is warm and secure. He received a large ovation, as did all the other singers and conductor.

The finale sees the happiest scene turn ugly with the newly married Ernani hearing the horn-call of de Silva on whose sound he had promised to commit suicide ‘on that day’. He bids farewell to Elvira and stabs himself after which da Silva uses the same dagger to slash the bride’s throat giving us an extra corpse for the final curtain. This was not done in the original production and seems like a gratuitous excess to me. In a concert version of this final trio done by Sutherland and Pavarotti the bass-baritone role was played by Marilyn Horne, proving her versatility. It was splendid, unlike the full recording which was under-par in some respects, especially Sutherland’s worrying wobble by that time in her glorious career.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Satyagraha at the Met Monday 14th April 2008.

Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Satyagraha. Travesty and con-job in my estimation.

Richard Croft, Bradley Garvin, Richard Bernstein, Rachelle Durkin, Ellie Dehn, Maria Zifchak. Conductor Dante Anzolini.

Dear Colleagues,
The Met has let us down badly with this ‘opera’ entitled Satyagraha. They have stated in various places that subtitles are available to all their operas – yet this was apparently an exception with major disadvantages for all involved. Because it was sung in an Indian dialect the entire opera was incomprehensible to most of us. A recent religious movie was made in Aramaic but subtitles kept viewers abreast of events. The only distant benefit was to remind us how much we missed before titles were introduced.

My opera notes are normally written from my experience in the theatre. Since the advent of titles I have made a point of not researching operas before seeing them in most cases. In fact I have not purchased a program for many years, preferring to use books, musical scores, CD booklets and even Google for my references ‘after the fact’. This has enabled me to form an impression from the work itself and not from various explanations from directors, designers, composers and (worst of all) opera managements. Since this is a great story of a great man, it is a shame I still have little idea of what it is about. I am still not certain how to pronounce the title. I missed ‘Gandhi’ the motion picture, but those who had seen it clearly were able to enjoy the opera better for the experience.

The ‘music’ of Satyagraha is nothing if not repetitive. All composers repeat their music yet this must break all bounds for cutting and pasting in music. One single semi-quaver note on the word ‘ha’ was sung 80 times at one stage - I was so bored that I started counting, like sheep in the night! And this monotony went on for what seemed like 20 minutes: ‘ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha’ 8, 16, 32 or more times in half or quarter notes separated by arpeggios of 4 crochets. If this is a useful, pleasant or beautiful musical device, and I am not sure that it is, then only a mighty ego in a composer could think that repeating it with only the slightest chromatic modulations over 100 times would be musical, tasteful or indeed, tolerable. I found it boring and unimaginative. Many patrons near me slept during much of the performance. If the words were of profound wisdom poetry then they were lost on most listeners. Occasional large projections which could only be read by those in the center of the theater gave little indication of events and some were in poor English translations (eg. ‘very excellent’).

Yet for boring repetition (and there was lots and lots of that) it would be hard to beat the final 15 minutes in which Gandhi, played by Richard Croft, repeats the same brief Sanskrit phrase on the same rising melodic minor scale of 8 notes what seems like 35 times in a very slow tempo. Mr Croft has a beautiful voice and while it is a pleasure to behold, after attending a 3 hour master class last week it was hard not to analyse. In this ‘scritto’ repetition, the ‘gear change’ occurred variably in the last 1, 2 or sometimes 3 notes. Males have head and chest voices, just like females, although it may not be talked about as much. Hence boring music became a singing lesson of sorts, and this is not a criticism of Mr Croft, just of Philip Glass and his poverty of invention. Speaking of which, one repeated motif I recognised from Cavalleria Rusticana, note for note. And that was repeated at least 3 times for me to be sure. No problem with that, it is just a shame that there was no development of the motif from that point, nor more interesting ‘borrowings‘ to balance the ‘machinery’ noise from the pit. I was reminded of the below-deck scene on “The Ship Sails On” where the famous singer competes with the steam turbines of an ocean liner. Doubtless some enjoy this sort of music which I personally consider a slow torture.

The other singers, chorus and orchestra should all be commended for accurate production of a work with so many alien features (a whole scene in act 1 appeared to be in 7/4 time!!). I think Rachel Durkin as Gandi’s assistant received the biggest applause apart from Croft himself.

The end came close to midnight and remarkably, many patrons remained in the expensive seats. A friend who sat in the Family Circle said that there was an exodus after the second intermission as people gave up on the work after a decent hearing of 2 acts. Neither had as much as an aria, a poem or a beautiful tableau from the stage. I had hoped for some particular high point in honour of the great man of the story.

The orchestration relied heavily on an electric organ which was quite overpowering at times, even against perhaps a half sized Met orchestra. Sometimes the tempi were extremely fast, other times embarrassingly slow. Much of the action on stage was in apparent slow motion. Again, if this is a clever device (and I am sure it can be) it can also be over-done and as with much we witnessed in the theater during the opera, excessive repetition was the order of proceedings.

On the other hand, the production was one of the most extraordinary and original I have seen in my life. Yet much of it was hard to connect with the life and times of the great man. Much was clearly drawing attention to the originators themselves more than to their story-telling skills. There were huge puppets operated by wires and rods; twice people are taken off stage via a ‘sky wire’ for no apparent purpose; alcoves in the massive curved corrugated iron set had inane household things going on as people climbed, or were pushed in or out. In one chorus scene variously dressed members all removed their outer garment as three rows of coat-hangers on chains were lowered from the fly level. It was bizarre as several dozen items had made their way from a dark wardrobe to grace the upper levels of the Metropolitan stage, the symbolism, beauty or utility of which was lost on me and others I spoke to.

Much of the story line depended on newspaper clippings which I learned later were emphasising this important means of communication for the resistance movement in South Africa. A Google search reveals that Satyagraha means nothing more than ‘non-violent resistance’. I still do not know how much if any of the story involved India. While there were dates from the late 1800’s to the 1920s there was no clear indication of what was going on. The entire floor of the Met stage was made up of glazed old newspapers (although they were in colour which seemed incongruous).

Another crazy scene saw about twenty minutes taken up with a slow motion chorus as one character after another rolled out cello-tape across the stage, each at a particular level and all horizontal. The result was a series of taught tape ties across the stage. These were snipped, cut, bundled and jettisoned, again to no particular effect … except to wonder what the director had in mind with this odd waste. In another scene a circular section was cut out of the floor, attached to a wire and flown off to the top of the stage accompanied by a stunt person - to no particular effect. Except that it did leave a fire at center stage into which each chorus member one by one monotonously threw what I learned later were Government ID cards (like Draft Card burnings in the US). This may have been the only meaningful part of the whole production, yet I missed it in the theater.

The act 1 puppets appeared to be made up of screwed up paper which was immensely clever artistically if over-my-head dramatically. Those used in act 2 were quite different and formed a hounding or herding band around the protagonist. The tallest could easily have passed for Fassolt of Fafner in the Ring. The others took the form of huge expressive Dickensian characters operated by rods, each with its own unusual anatomical features. Once again, I am not sure what it all meant, then or now.

All in all a disappointing night at the theater.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

Marilyn Horne Master Class in New York.

Manhattan School of Music: Voice Master Class with Marilyn Horne.

9th April 2008

Marilyn Horne held a free Master Class which was the culmination of two weeks of intensive coaching for 9 singers and their accompanists at the Manhattan School of Music, 122nd Street on Broadway. The event was open to the public free of charge, yet the Borden Auditorium was only about three quarters full. The evening ran from 7 to 10pm.

Ms Horne looked abundantly well in a brightly coloured outfit, seated for most of the evening at a desk on the stage opposite a black grand piano and music stand (which nobody actually used). The program notes stated that she had her 70th birthday in 2004.

Nine advanced vocal students appeared to be in their mid to late twenties … with almost as many piano accompanists. All were of highest calibre and indeed each would deserve a review in his/her own right … yet this would be unfair as we were not attending a performance, as Ms Horne stressed, but a coaching session. The first chose to sing Delilah’s first act aria which was splendid, as was the second who sang ‘I hear an army’, words by James Joyce and music by Samuel Barber. Ms Horne made a remark about the small number of Joyce books she had read. She also stopped and started the singers at various points, each clearly explained - sometimes with dramatic changes in the vocal results.

We heard sing Ah ichs fuhls; Baby Doe male aria; Delilah’s act 1 aria; Doppelganger; Fiesco’s first act aria; ‘I hear an army’; Oh mio Fernando (sung in Italian); Porgi amor; Spanish song: ‘El e muerte’.

Her commentary and banter throughout was pleasant and relaxing for everyone, without being in any way self-centred or tedious. She has something interesting and pertinent to say about just about everything – including the spring trees, bushes and bulbs lining Broadway on the way up to Columbia which all revealed spring to be the season she awaits with most impatience. This was in direct reference to the mention of ‘printemps’ and the mood needed for the phrase.
Ms Horne used many singing terms, as did her students, explaining the less familiar ones to those of us attending who were not trained or training in the voice. She talked about tempi, diaphragm, palate, jaw, breathing, nasal, head and chest voices, pitch, volume, dynamic, balance, technique, learning, speaking voice and lip movements. All made abundant sense at the time, but getting it altogether clearly takes a long period of intense training.

On several occasions Ms Horne pointed both extended index fingers laterally at her own cheek bones, raised her nose and upper lip slightly, while also making a gesture with her back and body. The latter was to indicate the “support” needed for each note from the diaphragm and everything below it (some say the heels are the most important!). The facial focus was to demonstrate the need to keep the ‘air flowing’ and the voice production up in the ‘resonant passages’.

She emphasised the wisdom of just following the enunciation of the words of any song, avoiding the temptation to force the lips and jaw into unnatural positions (especially sidewards), inevitably affecting the sound. I was a little surprised that there was no mention of trills or other ornaments. She did, however, emphasise the importance of a proper Italianate rolled ‘r’ sound which some of the singers had neglected.

Each singer began by singing their chosen number right through (or trying to). Ms Horne would then read out several pertinent points about the performance using some praise for the good parts and then going into detail about the parts she felt needed attention. These sections were repeated, sometimes up to 5 times and for the listening audience the difference was often dramatic and obvious. On other occasions the improvements seemed more obvious to the experts (and there were many of them present). One singer started with an obvious nasal sound, making one wonder if it had all been worthwhile. Ms Horne recognised the problem within seconds. She stopped the candidate and suggested that nerves had made them pout their lips (or some other labial contortion) which, when remedied, immediately yielded a most beautiful resonant sound, not in the least bit ‘nasal’.

On many occasions she pointed up the need to get the vowels correctly phonated. She quoted Ebi Stignani, ‘possibly the greatest mezzo-soprano who ever lived’ who called the ‘a’ vowel the ‘terrible’ vowel (in Italian). Apparently she often just turned it into an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ when singing to avoid the problem on high notes! We were all told about the need for a clean, accurate start to any song and several of the candidates demonstrated with false or weak starts. Another gripe only brought up on two occasions in the whole evening was not singing exactly what was written in the music. We were reminded of dotted notes and double-dotted notes, as well as those with half or quarter measures, triplets, couplets, syncopated starts and the like. It made one realise just how much effort must have already gone into each aria prior to the Master Class.

At one point Ms Horne said that the soprano in question had to pretend to be a tenor for a particular stressed phrase. She then demonstrated by imitating a tenor in full flight – using her completely intact mezzo voice – bringing the room to stitches of laughter. She sang many lines, notes, phrases and noises in full voice to demonstrate points to the candidates. On the subject of singers in full flight, she recommended The Gambler at the Met where she said cheap or even free seats might be available. She said that Vladimir Galouzine is one tenor today who has the staying power and beauty of voice she has not seen since the days of Gedda and Del Monaco. I had attended the same Gambler performance but without the same positive sentiments. I thought it was musically and dramatically woeful yet the stage design is most original and engaging (and would be ideal for a new Don Giovanni in my view).

There was much humour during the evening. Often her comments on and interactions with the singers were hilarious, sometimes just from unfamiliarity or surprise events: from clenched buttock muscles to ‘wiggles’ (“DON’T call them wobbles” she said – implying, however, that they mean the same thing). As the last singer presented her music to Ms Horne she opened to the wrong page and started to sing out loud Urbain’s first act aria from Les Huguenots, saying “I know this one!” “Non, non non non non non …”.

The last was the best performance to my ears and I made a point of going up to the elegant young lady who had been grilled by Ms Horne in detail thru the long recitative, aria and cabaletta. In particular, she pointed out that this young woman had a huge and natural chest voice and so, unlike others, she had to concentrate on emphasising and broadening her head register to ensure long life of her ‘instrument’. Ms Horne even asked her what note her register changed and the singer insisted that she never thought of things like that. Yet it seemed from what Ms Horne made her then do this ‘gear change’ at several notes lower, keeping the legato of certain phrases in the Donizetti. The cabaletta ‘Scritto e in ciel, il mio dolor’ was spectacular with the final notes nailed perfectly. Goose bumps all round!

Ms Horne gave several personal insights into the various roles. She said that the big aria is the major test for the role of Pamina in Magic Flute. She had never sung it herself due to the difficulties of the aria, although she had sung ‘Porgi amor’ from Nozze. She made the intriguing comment that Charles Mackerras had told her that he had found some evidence that ‘Ach ich fuhls’ should be sung much faster than traditionally done nowadays (he has also promoted some apparently authentic ornamentation for some Mozart gems). While she was not ‘ready’ for a fully andante version of this aria, she believed that the tempo should not lag, lest it make the aria more difficult to sing as well as less appealing in its purpose in the opera as Pamina shows her grief. Ms Horne said that she had done Italian roles in her ‘soprano days’ and very usually ‘auf Deutsch’.

Most bass students of hers rated Cesare Siepi as their favourite and this included the present candidate playing Fiesco from Simon Boccanegra. She said this was because of Siepi’s ability to stick strictly to the legato line. We were told that this aria is known in some quarters as the ‘National Anthem’ for basses. Ms Horne pointed out that this student had the ‘dollar notes’ (meaning the lowest) and now needed to attend certain other parts of his production, which he followed carefully with excellent results. Individual story lines of each of the songs and arias were emphasised in detail, including the Spanish song (grief, suicidal thoughts) and Doppelganger (shock at seeing one’s own reflection ringing hands in anguish).

I spoke to Ms Horne briefly after the master class to compliment her on her marvellous work with the young artists. She was delightful, even with a crusty gent who accosted her with a pile of old 33 RPM records for her to sign!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..