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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 ..

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