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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 ..