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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 ..

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