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24 December, 2009

Australia's national "opera company". Is it a joke?

Dear Colleagues,

At last there is a ray of hope from our national opera company with the last minute engagement of Ms Kizart to sing the role of Tosca following the withdrawal of Cheryl Barker. Ms Kizart’s YouTube clip of ‘Tu che le vanita’ from Don Carlos is very impressive and she should make a fine Tosca in this new, updated production. John Wegner as Scarpia and Rosario La Spina as Cavaradossi should combine to make a marvellous first cast.

There seems to have been nothing but bad news from the national company in recent months and now, due to the expense of building the new Benedict Andrews production and the ‘financial risk’ involved, the company has regretfully decided to re-present the Neil Armfield production instead this season.

Lisa Gasteen, who was billed to sing Fanciulla del West, has also unfortunately withdrawn, as she did from last season’s Fidelio.

The impeccable Emma Matthews was unwell for much of the Sydney season of Montagues and Capulets but we look forward to hearing her again in Candide in the Parks Concert in January with David Hobson who is finally making a welcomed return to opera in Sydney with the national company. NOT TO BE MISSED! I hope it is televised.

Wishing all readers a safe and sound holiday season,

Andrew Byrne ..

See tides and tidings posting on web site:

01 November, 2009

Tosca and Rome - both immortal.

Tosca and Rome - both immortal.

It is worthwhile spending some time with this opera before moving on to the Wagner.

Tosca is rare in the field of opera regarding its ‘realism’. The events of the opera mean that its date is exact. Napoleon was then conquering areas well beyond France. You might say it was one of the many attempts to unify Europe which has now happened peacefully with the same currency, foreign policy and trade laws for most of the countries. The Battle of Marengo is mentioned in the text somewhere and 1799 was the year. He had already tried to conquer Egypt!

Further, each act takes place in a location which actually exists … and most tourists to Rome will see at least one of these either on purpose or just because they run into it. Opera fans will make a point of seeing all three! The church of Saint Andrea del Vallé is in the Corso Vittorio Emannule II and is magnificent … but no more magnificent than a dozen or more churches in Rome. The Farnese Palace became the French embassy. The Castel St Angelo has a long history and it is said that whoever holds this castle ‘will hold Rome’. It was originally a tumulus burial monument for Nero I believe and has since been built on, used as a prison, palace and tourist attraction. While it is not far from the Vatican itself, I believe there used to be tiny, narrow streets which Mussolini bulldozed to create the now magnificent avenue leading to St Peter’s square. It had been hemmed in for hundreds of years and pilgrims had to weave their way past the poor district to get to see the ONLY completed cathedral in the entire country (I kid you not). The Pope now owns the Castel St Angelo and he apparently has a small apartment there. Although it is huge, most is just firmament with ramps, stairs, tunnels, etc within. Its fenestrated battlements are recognisable for miles around and it is literally on the Tiber River, with only a small but busy two lane road in between, not to mention a little bridge directly in front … called (naturally!) the Ponto St Angelo.

So this opera is very popular, perhaps the 6 or 7th most popular of all operas at a guess, slightly after the famous 1,2,3 or “ABC” (Aida, Boheme, Carmen) of opera which no company can ignore in ANY season without risking bankruptcy.

Maria Callas was the most famous exponent of the part but Monserrat Caballé made by far the most impressive recordings of ‘Vissi d’arte’, the very famous soprano aria (act 2). Apart from this, the opera is famous for not one but two immortal tenor arias, ‘Recondita armonia’ (act 1) and ‘E lucevan le stelle’ (act 3). Pavarotti (and most famous tenors) often sang one or even both of these two in their concerts.

This is also a good demonstration of the difference between a coloratura soprano and the dramatic soprano. The former, ‘a big canary’ would be taking big risk in attempting this role while the latter is more like a vocal locomotive for whom it is a gift.

So, get with the strength and vote number one: “TOSCA!!”

18 October, 2009

Peter Grimes at Sydney Opera House.

Peter Grimes: Britten. Sydney Opera House 2009 Thursday 15th October 2009

Dear Colleagues,

This was an extraordinary night at the opera, honour being had by all. Even the fussiest Britten fan should not be disappointed by the overall effect of this production. It was set in a classic 20th century British community hall, complete with angled windows, swinging double doors, wall clock, hanging fluorescent lights and curtained stage with central steps for prize recipients. Only the portrait of ‘her maj’ was missing.

Maestro Mark Wigglesworth was the hero of the evening as he conducted an experienced and well placed orchestra with flair and knowing enthusiasm. Full-throated Australian international tenor Stuart Skelton played the title role with sufficient ambiguity to be sympathetic, despite the obvious negatives. He sang Grimes to the cleaners with extended, exciting high and mighty vocalising. He also managed to often appear shy and insipid dramatically to augment the uncertainty about his motives and circumstances.

Ms Susan Gritton played a fine Ellen Orford with an incising and substantial soprano voice. I note that she has recorded with Pamela Helen Stephens under Richard Hickox. While her portrayal was marvellous it is hard to imagine that there is no Australian soprano available, despite the challenges of this role.

Peter Coleman-Wright was an effective (retired) Captain Balstrode. The two chirpy nieces were played well by Lorina Gore and Taryn Fiebig. Kanen Breen was appropriately cast as the clergyman.

Along with the solo village characters (David Corcoran, Richard Anderson, Elizabeth Campbell, Andrew Moran, Peter Carroll and Catherine Carby) the chorus was excellent. They acted separately and then in concert, unity and purpose when required.

The opera is meant to take place in numerous locations from the seashore to boat house to village court house. With ubiquitous modern economies we see almost the entire opera take place in the village hall. Ropes, tackle and nets are carted through the hall as if it were the marine seaside. A boat is even dragged through the building which is beyond bizarre. Lightning occurs inside and a storm is quite cleverly mimicked within. Such is modern opera. At one point the rear proscenium is pushed forward to become the fisherman’s cliff-top hang-out for the death scene.

As in the excellent old John Copley production in 2001 we were presented with apprentices who were very young pre-pubertal boys rather than the mid-teenagers one might glean from Crabbe’s source poem - and its libretto by Montagu Slater. I find Slater’s constant scrambling of English grammar to be tiresome, despite its initial cleverness. Peter Grimes is a 20th century masterpiece but it is clearly not everybody’s cup of tea as the theatre was far from full, even with large numbers of free tickets given away. This may be one of the company’s best efforts this year. The audience literally screamed at the end with cheers for all those involved.

For those who enjoy Benjamin Britten (I exclude myself) this opera is a ‘must-see’ … and there are only 5 more performances (one being on Saturday night, after only one day’s break!).

It seems unbalanced and unfair that most operas billed to be conducted by the musical director in recent years had internationally acclaimed casts singing with the best of Australia’s resident opera singers. Peter Grimes has five artists who have reputations at a high international level (Wigglesworth, Armfield, Skelton, Gritton, Coleman-Wright). At the same time most of our other operas this year have had only one or two who might fit this category - some had none. While less notable productions of La Boheme and Cosi fan tutte were televised by the ABC, the operas with world-class casts and productions were passed over for mere audio recordings with an English record company, denying posterity the sight of such unique performances from down-under.

It is sad to see such a poor quality televised production of Cosi fan tutte recently on the ABC. While it was not as bad as last year’s La Boheme, there is still a major contrast with previous video efforts of this company as well as with modern high definition broadcasts from New York and elsewhere. There were no sub-titles. The commentary was excruciating. Jennifer Byrne’s cues (no relation) were visible written on the palm of her hand! While there was some fine singing, the production and camera work did not compliment it. I have just watched the second half of Les Huguenots from 1990 and it is superior in every way.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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01 October, 2009

2010 season for the national opera company advertised.

Opera season 2010 hard to understand ... preliminary summation.

I read through the next season’s OA brochure with a feeling of persistent and profound disappointment. It would appear to be the final nail in the coffin of a spent company whose direction is decidedly downhill.

Tosca (Barker/Youl) in a modern production with ONE intermission? [Surely that is a misprint!] And although La Spina may be fine vocally as the opening Cavaradossi, Barricelli was last year’s disappointing second cast Rodolfo and is not up to standard to my mind/ear/eye, etc. And an updated production which is meant to be a successor to the magnificent John Copley version? Seriously? The scene shown in the subscription brochure is not endearing, looking like a smoky and sepia back-room - a very long way from the Farnese Palace of history (or even the glorious present). Scarpia is not billed at all on the web site but apparently opens with John Wegner who is a fine artist and I think has done the role here before. Fyfe is second cast having been Sacristan initially. They should both be interesting … one with a most beautiful voice, the other large and unsubtle (and possibly even better suited to the role). Sacristan to Scarpia is indeed a steep learning curve!

The only visiting singer I would have really liked to have heard was Lisa Gasteen as Fanciulla. She has pulled out with “a neck injury”, according to a leaflet in the brochure as an addendum. Some brochures were received without the leaflet and such patrons reapplying may be sorely disappointed when seeing the Girl of the Golden West. Dennis O'Neill is billed to do Dick Johnson while Jack Rance is John Wegner. One hopes that the company has talented understudies available this time. If they had been professional (and honest) with their audience Ms Gasteen would have had an understudy chosen and available for Fidelio. In such a case, no debate would be necessary as a talented soprano would just take her place as is ‘normal’ for such situations, short or long term in the theatre.

La Sonnambula is with Emma Matthews and Hye Seoung Kwon as second cast with Aldo di Toro as Elvino with Lorina Gore as Lisa. Bonynge conducting (if he makes it - apparently he wanted to pull out of Capulets but Dame Joan apparently pushed him to do it despite the ugly production and other hurdles last season). It is extraordinary for any opera company to do two rare Bellini operas in successive years - yet more bizarre choices in this company.

I note that one week (starting Mon 16th Aug 2010) the company is expected to give quality performances of La Sonnambula on the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings, despite this being one of the most demanding operas in the entire repertoire. Likewise, between 16 and 29 October the cast of Rigoletto has to perform 6 times. On no less than 3 occasions this very taxing opera has to be sung with only one day’s break. This is a criminal act in my view, especially for young singers who may not have the stamina to do such a feat without damaging their voices.

The publicity shot of Rigoletto includes long-time chorus stalwart Mr Theo Connors who died quite some years ago. Surely in his memory if nothing else, they might get an up-to-date shot of this excellent production.

There are only a small number of imported artists of international calibre in the entire season as far as I can see. Dennis O’Neill has apparently just done a successful La Juive in Amsterdam while Elvira Fatykhova, billed to do Traviata, is also well known internationally. Tahu Rhodes, Opie, Coad, Bonynge also ‘rate’.

Other Traviata roles are assigned to Di Toro, Summers/Lewis. It is unlikely that any of these singers will give a better performance that we have heard from them in the past.

Manon: Farrugia, Gavin, Carbo, Bennett. Again we have Carbo in a minor and in some ways unrewarding role of Lescaut despite his prodigious talents, vocal and dramatic. Nonetheless, this promises to be a good choice with the wonderful Julian Gavin and always reliable Amelia Farrugia.

Rigoletto with David Corcoran (alt. cast Paul O’Neill) and Emma Matthews. The jester is Alan Opie, aged 65, (alt. Warwick Fyfe). Mr Corcoran also does Nick in Fanciulla. It is inconsistent and unconventional casting in my view. Let’s hope it pays off.

Rosenkavalier: Barker Carby Kwon Choo Fyfe

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Cole, Durkin, Arthur, Carby, Coad

In short: Most operas I either don’t care to see (Pirates, Bliss, Night Music, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rosenkavalier) or else I have seen so often that I don’t need to see again just now (Tosca, Rigoletto, Traviata, Nozze) … leaving Manon, La Sonnambula and Fanciulla (if they can find a worthy Minnie) as the only operas I would look forward to seeing in the 2010 seasons.

I suspect I am not alone in these views and I predict the company will have a lot of trouble keeping the bottom line with such a devalued artistic product. This is tragic and just another part of the ‘operatic’ story being played out in what should be a happy tale.

Note that there is no New Year's Eve concert, nor any explanation as far as I could find. The main season opens with Sondheim … not that I have anything against Sondheim, but opera it ain't - see the company’s clearly worded mission statement. It takes two and a half weeks into the season before we actually hear an opera from this opera company with Fanciulla del West.

Likewise in January for the first time the company joins the Festival of Sydney (whatever that means, but they say Candide in the Park is ‘opera’ which is fair enough in my book) yet in the first two weeks of January there are only two true opera performances (with 12 in the following two weeks).

I have never been able to work out why there are so many gaps in opera schedules, especially Fridays and Saturdays. Most rehearsals are during the day. Uniquely, I note that in a four week period in March 2010 (3rd to 30th) there are 26 out of 28 possible performances (Mon to Sat evenings plus a matinee) and there are no 'gaps' at all on Fridays or Saturdays. This is “making money” if the houses are reasonable. By contrast in June, July and August there are 13, 7 and 10 'gaps' where there is no paying public. Each night empty the company loses big time. Remarkably, 7 of these 'skipped' performance spaces are on Friday or Saturday dates which are the only ones traditionally for the theatre which ‘make money’.

Take your pick, it’s a lottery.

29 September, 2009

Cosi fan tutte at Sydney Opera House.

Cosi fan tutte. W. A. Mozart. Sydney Opera House Thursday 17th September 2009

Ferrando - Henry Choo
Guglielmo - Shane Lawrencev
Don Alfonso - Jose Carbo
Fiordiligi - Rachel Durkin
Dorabella - Sian Pendry
Despina - Tiffany Speight
Conductor - Simon Hewitt
Director – Jim Sharman
Sets – Ralph Myers

Dear Colleagues,

This opera opening failed to inspire. The production makes the convoluted but symmetrical drama even more bizarre by placing it as the feature at a Japanese wedding - and the opera is about wife swapping! Seriously! By chance I was seated next to a young man visiting from Japan – he seemed suitably bemused by it all.

My seats were towards the end of the first row of the circle and much of the stage set was hidden from view. Mozart’s magnificent aria ‘Un aura amorosa’ was rather beautifully sung by Henry Choo although he was invisible to us at the rear of the stage. This was not the only important aria to be sung at such a disadvantage. What was Jim Sharman thinking? Does he know opera? Does he like the voice? Does he have any respect for the opera audience in B-reserve? At musically melting times like ‘Un aura amorosa’, production details, costumes, wigs and all disappear from relevance to the opera fan. Would Mr Sharman have the show-piece sung off stage, perhaps? Or a mad scene in the Green Room? They are the only times when it is essential to ‘stand and deliver’.

Conductor Simon Hewitt tried to be clever-by-half by just starting the overture without the usual entrance bow. Maestro Cillario once did this in the Concert Hall with the Otello storm opening … and it was stunning. This time it fell flat as the audience was clapping weakly while the orchestra struck up, spoiling the beginning but giving promise of a problematic night at the opera.

Jose Carbo is one of the country's best baritones (he recently landed work at La Scala, Milan). His voice and good looks would have made him ideal as the young lover yet he was cast with a grey wig to be Don Alfonso, the sceptical old drama devisor.

Fordiligi and Dorabella had to do a scene in 1950s bathing suits. While Pendry and Durkin shape up well, this decision limits the production substantially for understudies, future participants and for use by other companies. The inevitable result is that voice will not be the main attribute in casting, but rather the figure of the soprano auditioning. Few of the world’s best opera singers would present well in bathing suits on stage so this would be like having a masters golf tournament where all participants had to be over six foot tall … or under 30 … or blond … or blue-eyed. The ‘main game’ of opera is big, beautiful, unamplified singing (in case that needed stating!). While ‘Hollywood’ choices may sometimes work as Baz Luhrman’s La Boheme, or Netrebko/Villazon Manon, this time it failed by demanding too much of the work and the audience.

In place of a large mock-magnet to resuscitate the ailing men, this director had Doctor Mesmer use a huge plastic phallus to excite the boys back to consciousness … which was as illogical as it was tasteless. Equally out of place was the confetti used throughout the production, despite there being two brief wedding scenes in which it might have been appropriate. At the start the ‘boys’ are taking a shower ‘under confetti’ for no particular reason while the tenor scratches his groin. This school boy humour is quite out of place, adding nothing to the drama. A full-length white see-through stage curtain was frequently and demonstrably dragged open and closed, rarely revealing or obscuring anything substantive.

The language argument will never be won or lost but I personally never wish to hear this opera performed in English, although much of the vocal translation contained very beautiful language, unlike some others we have heard over the years.

On several occasions a paparazzi video-cameraman walked onto stage filming singers close up with rear stage projections. At one point he turned his lens toward the audience and several women at random who suddenly found themselves in the show on a magnified screen, perhaps to their delight but equally possibly, embarrassment. This detracted from both Mozart's music and the drama. Again, it is hard to know what Mr Sharman was thinking.

Each of the main singers performed well, despite the disadvantages of having to do extraordinary and sometimes quite athletic things on stage. As usual, the company orchestra and chorus were the backbones of the performance. It was just such a shame that the management, lacking any real supervision, had again allowed a few clever ideas to get in the way of good opera, rather than enhancing it.

And next year’s season looks to be more of the same unbalanced pedestrian fare. No flair, no fire and few stars in really starring roles. Details on request or see the web site.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

08 September, 2009

Kiri conquers Sydney again - concert of opera arias.

Kiri Te Kanawa at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (Vladamir Ashkenazy Principal Conductor). Saturday 5th September 2009.

Concert conductor: Brian Castles-Onion. [see program items below]

Dear Reader,

The orchestral content alone would almost have been worth the ticket price. Each of four overtures/interlude from three centuries was played with gusto, accuracy and flair. Ms Te Kanawa appeared after the Nozze overture looking radiant yet relaxed and youthful in a full length red dress with sheer black jacket. Her bracket of songs from Mozart operas was immaculate and regal. Each is exacting in every way and Te Kanawa gave a veritable singing lesson with each one. Tempi were measured and much of the vocal line was taken softly with floated notes of great beauty contrasting with her strong and rather bell-like forte production. The voice is not as large as it once was but in this hall with excellent acoustics it carried perfectly well, even with a large orchestra and no amplification.

In the second half the diva was dressed in a splendid gown of kingfisher blue for an equally ambitious opening bracket of three Puccini songs.

This was the Saturday reprise of Thursday’s opening and it was a full house apart from some scattered seats in the organ gallery. The audience was politely appreciative. I suspect most were not regular opera goers. There was obviously a strong Kiwi contingent, including the singer’s son who we were told in a slightly awkward bit of banter, had ‘come over for the weekend’. Mr Castles-Onion looked somewhat nervous and sounded slightly awkward with his attempts at humour in his ‘talk time’. Nonetheless he had the orchestra sounding magnificent. Ms Te Kanawa made some generous remarks about Sydney as well as a comment Barry Humphries had made about her being ‘well preserved’ (which she is).

I enjoyed the Te Kanawa concert immensely and it would be hard to find better value for $150 anywhere. My favourites were probably the traditional Boheme extract (also one of Nellie Melba’s last) and Liu’s aria. The Arabella finale was also brilliant. None was ill-chosen and all well executed while her ‘O mio babino caro’ encore brought the house down. After the beautiful unaccompanied Maori love song ‘Pokarekare ana’ there was a standing ovation.

By chance there was a simultaneous intermission with the opera hall adjacent. While I did not recognise anyone in the concert hall audience, there were plenty of familiar faces in the opera foyer including Neville Wran, Andrew McKinnon and the Whittens. They were all attending another in the bumpy run of Bellini’s rarity Capulets & Montagues, conducted by Richard Bonynge. I was told that there were hundreds of empty seats. It is a shame that the marketing people did not do something clever to remind the potential audience that this otherwise obscure opera was “the composer of Norma’s tragic and tuneful version of the Romeo and Juliet story”.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

The Marriage of Figaro: Overture
The Magic Flute: “Ach, ich fühl’s”
The Marriage of Figaro: “Porgi amor”
“E Susanna non vien! … Dove sono”
SAINT-SAËNS Samson et Dalila: Bacchanale
GUASTAVINO “La rosa y el sauce” (The Rose and the Willow)
GINASTERA “Canción al árbol del olvido” (The Tree of Forgetting)
R STRAUSS Closing scene from Arabella
VERDI The Force of Destiny: Overture
Turandot: “Signore, ascolta”
La bohème: “Donde lieta uscì”
Edgar: “O fior del giorno”
BERNSTEIN Candide: Overture
KORNGOLD Die tote Stadt: Marietta’s Song
CHARPENTIER Louise: “Depuis le jour”
Encores: PUCCINI O mio babino caro; Maori love song ‘Pokarekare ana’.

05 September, 2009

Sydney opera season continues ... much worth seeing and hearing.

I Capuleti ed i Montecchi. Bellini. Sydney Opera House Tuesday 1st September 2009. Mikado, Fidelio and Aida seasons continue.

Dear Readers,

I had the good fortune to return to the Capulets and Montagues this week to hear the advertised first cast after a spate of illness and incidents to afflict this company and its artists. On various nights Henry Choo replaced Aldo di Toro; Hye Seoung Kwon replaced Emma Matthews; Domenica Matthews replaced Catherine Carby.

Catherine Carby, who I heard twice, is perfection as Romeo (leaving aside gender issues). Emma Matthews is back in fine form with her elegant portrayal of Juliet. Her ‘O quante volte’ was very moving indeed and she worked well in the duets and choruses, ending Act I with a ripping E flat to great applause. Aldo di Toro has a distinguished tenor voice and a fine dramatic presence, yet he lacked the youthful enthusiasm in Choo’s equally fine portrayal.

Stephen Bennett did not seem at home in his role as Capellio. I find it hard to warm to the gruff voice of Gennadi Dubinsky as Lorenzo … to me he was more appropriately cast in Aida as Ramfis.

There was a Juliet ‘double’ who was used and abused by being suspended from the fly tower and physically thrown through mid-air across the stage from one aggressive party to another. This was one of the most distracting and unnecessary stage devices I have seen in recent years.

Bellini’s score for Capuleti has many elevating melodic moments but this production, inspired apparently from Northern Ireland, is persistently depressing and dreary, lacking any contrasting beauty. The main curtain has become an enlarged shooting range target – complete with bullet holes.

Despite being originally set in grand Italian dwellings, the stage in this production remains virtually bare and lacks furniture, carpets, fixtures or fittings … only a suspended panel ceiling which might as well have fire sprinklers for its realism. Just a single chair, Persian rug or table would have made a difference as something tangible and elegant to balance the smoky gloom of the setting. Juliet’s first sentiment is “Here am I in my finest garments” and she is lying on a bare stage in a negligee and cardigan. Did the director read the script? One wonders about the judgement of the company accepting this package without significant changes.

There were many empty seats on the nights I attended which is a tragedy for such a rare Bellini master-work conducted by Richard Bonynge who is one of the world’s great exponents of this genre of bel canto.

The company has been battling sickness again this winter. Perhaps they should write influenza vaccination into the singers’ contracts. While some have blamed the economic downturn for poor ticket sales, other Sydney theatres have apparently maintained or improved their audience base.

A Fidelio fiasco the previous week saw a performance delayed for over half an hour while a second understudy was sought. According to a press report the first understudy was in Melbourne! Anke Hoppner came from her home at very short notice, having to sing from the side of the stage while Nicole Youl acted the role, mute with sudden laryngitis. I hope that some explanation is forthcoming as to why all this happened when illness was in the air and up to 1500 people would otherwise have had to be given refunds (and perhaps they should have anyway). This is not some provincial, part-time amateur company but one of the world’s longest running professional establishments which has included some of the world’s greatest talents on their stage.

There was also the matter of the overfilled pond in Aida and the painfully distorted amplification in the Fidelio opening night. These were yet more examples of this company lurching from one disaster to another like a ship without a captain. One hopes that the new artistic director is able to turn this wayward ship around.

The company might be reprieved temporarily by full houses to Aida even though the production is not really up to an acceptable international standard in my view. The sets are somewhat flimsy and ‘cardboard’ like although the movement and ballet steps are very inventive.

The Mikado season has also started with a far from full house for what should be a sold out night. It may be that everyone in Sydney who wants to see Mikado has already done so, considering its last season was in 2004. The company is well overdue to do a new G&S and Yeoman of the Guard would be a good choice in my view.

Despite all of these criticisms, the company is still afloat, like the Australian economy. Its orchestra and chorus are indeed top notch. And it has one of the most prominent theatres in the world with both passing tourist trade and a local subscriber base in both Sydney and Melbourne. So one wishes the new artistic director well in his difficult new job where he will have to made many tough decisions.

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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Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables.

19 August, 2009

Capuleti e i Montecchi & Aida in Sydney.

Sydney winter season up-date: two operas worth seeing.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Bellini. Sydney Opera House Tuesday 11th August 2009.
Aida - Verdi - Sydney Opera House Saturday 15th August 2009 7.30pm

The Sydney ‘winter’ (it feels more like summer at present!) opera season continues with Bellini’s little known take on the Romeo and Juliet story as well as a second cast for the new Graeme Murphy Aida (with “Mexico” high E flat!!).

The Bellini never quite caught fire for me even though individual performances were mostly very fine. Aldo di Toro joined this season’s indisposed, replaced by Henry Choo who performed quite superlatively on this occasion. He looked the part and was a fine Tebaldo vocally as well. Ms Matthews seemed to be a bit below par in this role specifically chosen for her. The part of Juliet does not have much of the vocal fioritura which is her forte. Catherine Carby was the star of the night as Romeo. Suitably cross-dressed, she sang with a wide vocal range, giving colour to every note.

The chorus sang with their usual flair and gusto - and their dramatic moves were convincing and synchronised - they are the backbone of the company.

It was sad to see that Joan Sutherland was not present. She has attended most of her husband’s openings since her own retirement 19 years ago, at least when she was in Sydney. Maestro Richard Bonynge had the orchestra sounding balanced, fluid and ever-tuneful as for all of Bellini’s operas. The overture is a masterly piece of symphonic engineering, almost a continuous fanfare … it was one of the evening’s few high points for me.

There were a significant number of empty seats on this opening night which may reflect the company’s obvious decline in standards over recent years. Traditionally their gala openings have generally been virtually full and for this reason the company could afford to put some of them on a weekday.

This Capuleti production had its genesis in Ireland and came via Opera North with a sectarian destructive flavour appropriate to the book. Unfortunately there was little counter-balancing beauty to find in the sets, costumes or lighting to my taste. The curtain was in the form of a wall with illuminated bullet holes joined by a black line. The stage had a large quadrangular piece of stylish blond parquet with a ripped and damaged corner. In the last act much of the flooring had been rent asunder in the melee, cleverly evoking the violence in the intermission. There was much violence threatened on stage but little actually happening. One patron said it was a lesson in pacifism!

Some opera directors and designers seem to have forgotten that most fans go to the opera for the singing and the other things need to ‘fit in’ rather than the other way around. Ms Matthews was made to sing her first phrases lying on the ground facing the rear of the stage. With the odd resonation I thought for a moment we were having amplification again as in Fidelio. The apparent amplification was strenuously denied by several company people afterwards … but why was a test of recording equipment (the reason given) allowed to occur during an opening night performance? Surely this is what rehearsals are for.

I was so disengaged at one stage that I wondered just what makes an opera ‘special’, deciding that there must be something or things which raise goose flesh. With limbic reward pathways in the brain, even logical sensible people can develop a desire to revisit the experience. Samuel Johnson said it was an exotic and irrational entertainment. This is almost the definition of an addictive behaviour, including tobacco smoking. There was little or nothing in this Capuleti performance which I wanted to re-visit, so addiction was not a consideration. For those who have experienced a satisfactory performance of Lucia’s mad scene or the quartet from Rigoletto or the duets from Lakmé or Pearlfishers, they will know what I mean. If one had seen and heard the Mexico City Aida with Fabriitis, Callas and Del Monaco … or Norma with Sutherland … or Tosca with Caballe and/or Pavarotti … THEN one would be inoculated with opera for life. Just one such performance could provide dinner party stories forever.

The Saturday 15 August performance of Aida had a most impressive second cast. Claire Rutter did a mighty job with Aida, daring to risk taste and tonsil with a brief but accurate terminal high E-flat in competition with the entire Triumphal chorus, orchestra (and original score). Maria Callas had done this to great acclaim in Mexico City in 1951. Rosario La Spina was superb as Radames - I think this is his best role yet although he is not the most ‘subtle’ singer. Elizabeth Campbell as Amneris and Barry Ryan as Amonasro were both adequate. David Parkin’s Pharaoh was more comfortable and consistent than he had been on opening night. As Ramfis we heard Gennadi Dubinski who is new to me in the poorly served and important field of bass-baritones. I would say that this second cast was as worthy as opening night across the board. Some excellent casting decisions have been made for Aida. The full audience shows that a good performance of a popular opera can still get a full house.

The Nile pond, featuring prominently at the front of the stage was apparently overfilled, causing a spill into the orchestra during the first intermission. They may have needed umbrellas! The audience was kept waiting for some time while the problem as rectified. Like the loud-speaker problem in Fidelio it is hard to explain how this kind of thing could happen in a tightly run opera house. Water on stage, like amplification, needs constant minute-by-minute supervision.

These operas are still worth seeing if you are in Sydney. Capuleti has some glorious moments in what is, in my view, an imperfect opera. Aida needs no introduction and novices should consummate their acquaintance with this masterpiece before going to their next dinner party (do people still have ‘dinner parties’?).

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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02 August, 2009

Fidelio at the Sydney Opera House.

Fidelio. Ludwig van Beethoven. The Sydney Opera House. 7.30pm Thursday 30th July 2009.

Jaquino - Stephen Smith
Marzelline - Lorina Gore
Rocco - Conal Coad
Leonore - Elizabeth Stannard
Don Pizarro - Peter Coleman-Wright
Florestan - Julian Gavin
Don Fernando - Warwick Fyfe
c. Jonathan Darlington
p. Michael Hampe

Dear Colleagues,

The sublime Lisa Gasteen had pulled out some months ago – possibly due to vocal indisposition - so Nicole Youl had been engaged to do the title role … but she was also unable to sing - due to a ‘winter virus’. According to General Manager Adrian Collette’s announcement Ms Youl’s understudy, Elizabeth Stannard had been singing Ariadne auf Naxos in Melbourne during the Fidelio rehearsal period, something which is hard to understand. Hence the audience was asked for patience and understanding. Ms Stannard was a member of the company’s chorus from 1998 to 2000. Her performance was satisfactory in the circumstances and she received a strong ovation, not all just sympathy either. Nevertheless, for a first night audience expecting the advertised Ms Gasteen this was far less than adequate.

Julian Gavin was absolute perfection as Florestan, putting colour, energy and light into every note he sang. Even his opening ‘Gott!’ was done in an original manner, sounding as if he turned from facing the back of the stage towards the audience in the course of that searing note. It is just one of the imperfections of this work that a great tenor is required for less than an hour, singing only in Act II. I wonder if a prologue from happier days of yore might be an improvement. The company could have done one of the other ‘Leonora’ overtures before Act II but we seem to get nothing extra from this company any more.

For their parts, Peter Coleman-Wright and Warwick Fyfe were well cast and effective. Stephen Smith as Jaquino was top rate while the Marzelline of Lorina Gore was also excellent. Conal Coad played a fine Rocco however his voice and others were mysteriously and loudly amplified from speakers in the rear of the auditorium in numerous intermittent bungles towards the end of Act I. This created an ugly and off-putting display of electronic anti-wizardry and interrupted the otherwise excellent singing of Mr Coad as well as some classy chorus singing in the prisoners’ scene. Full marks to chorus master Michael Black! Mr Darlington’s fine conducting was another link which held the performance together despite the diverse difficulties.

To my mind there is no excuse for (nor requirement for) amplification in the opera house setting (ever!). Indeed amplifying opera singers debases their art and training. With subtitles it is no longer necessary to amplify dialogue, especially in a relatively small house with good acoustics.

I was fortunate to hear Erika Sunnegardh and Richard Margison in the Met Fidelio in 2002 … but even with lowered expectations somehow the Sydney performance was all a bit flat, especially the first half. Michael Hampe and John Gunter’s production cleverly joins the scenes of Act II. Thus they cut straight from the marvellous 'private' reconciliation dungeon duet directly to Beethoven’s very 'public' final choral tour-de-force. How this is done needs to be seen rather than tediously explained by me. Suffice it to say that it received bigger applause than some of the singing.

Still worth a visit to the Sydney Opera House …

Comments by Dr Andrew Byrne ..

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21 July, 2009

Manon Lescaut at the Sydney Opera House. Worth seeing!

Manon Lescaut - Giacomo Puccini. Thurs 16th July 2009 Sydney Opera House.

Lescaut - Teddy Tahu-Rhodes
Manon - Cheryl Barker
René Des Grieux - Jorge Lopez-Yanez
Geronte di Ravoir - Richard Alexander
c. Alexander Polianichko
d. Gale Edwards

Dear Colleagues,
The opera company has pulled it out of the bag again with another ‘adequate’ performance containing enough high points to keep the crowds happy. Mr Tahu-Rhodes is a great opera singer and he was crucial to the success of the piece. However, this casting decision left a great singer without as much as a famous aria and further, it allowed him to play another ‘scallywag’ role, hardly a great dramatic feat.

Each of the principal singers used their considerable resources, showing that grand opera is always a vocal marathon. The artists deal with it variously but there are some ground rules most agree on such as resting the day before a ‘big sing’.

Mr Lopez-Yanez eschewed some high notes initially but warmed into the role of the student Des Grieux. He looks the part, and moves emotionally from adolescence to manhood in Act I between his light ‘Tra voi belle’ to the profound ‘Donna non vidi mai’.

Ms Barker is an ‘immaculate’ singer and her attention to detail in this as every role was near flawless. More important perhaps were the couple of times when she has to ‘let it rip’ and take a risk. Each of these paid off handsomely and the audience received that thrill which opera is all about. Her impetuous phrasing of ‘Tu, tu, amore tu’ contrasted with the lilting ‘In quelle trine morbide’ and finally her woeful American denouement ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’. For some reason she was not made up to look like the debutante we know she can portray so well.

The set and setting for act one was rather clumsy to my taste being two large unhitched stage-coaches, neither being the one Mlle Lescaut arrived on, nor either the one the lovers fled in. It was unclear why so much activity happened atop these Cobb & Co cabooses.

Act two, by contrast, was a magnificent Parisian salon with large double doors (which seemed to lead to nowhere). Unlike Massenet’s slightly earlier 5 act version, Manon is already beyond her fling with young des Grieux and in the Parisian household of rich old Geronte. It appears that Puccini wished to present an original version of the events as well as a more concise adaptation of Prevost‘s story. Auber had also written an opera on the same story 30 years earlier.

Richard Alexander played an excellent Geronte. Dominica Matthews and Stephen Smith were also fine as madrigal singer and student.

The chorus and orchestra were up to their usual high standards.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

12 July, 2009

Sydney Aida by Graeme Murphy - clever spectacle, adequate singing.

Aida. Sydney Opera House Tuesday 7th July 2009

Dear Colleagues,

The national company has a coup with Aida, one of the classic “ABC’s of Opera”. Along with Boheme and Carmen, these are the operas which impresarios ignore at their peril. After 12 years, Aida is back in Sydney. True to this maxim, there was hardly an empty seat for this Tuesday night opening. Dance supremo Graham Murphy has injected colour, light, movement and thought into the piece. A projected pyramid stands behind a flat illuminated triangle in which much of the intimate action takes place in this great work from 1871.

Other Egyptian motives included the Udjat eye of Horus, falcon wings, sphinx, columns with capitals, papyrus buds and lotus flowers. Some of these were literally cardboard cut-outs in black and white while others were enormous models. There was frequent projection of hieroglyphics onto the set, mostly of the Middle Kingdom classic written script rather than the more impressive coloured raised relief seen on Old Kingdom temples, obelisks and tombs. There were no pharaoh’s cartouches to tell us the period … although this story could have happened at almost any time in Egyptian history - except the 25th dynasty when the Ethiopians put their own southern pharaoh on the Egyptian throne.

American soprano Tamara Wilson sang the title role with flare and verve. She has an effortless and impeccable vocal production. However, at 27 years, this is still a young voice with many more life experiences to add further maturity and deeper expression.

Korean Mr Dongwon Shin passed the ultimate test for the tenor by conquering Celeste Aida. Unlike many tenors, he was more secure at the end than at the beginning. Remarkably, he sang the final words ‘… vicino al sol’ (‘close to the sun’) with a final diminuendo … and then repeated the words an octave lower! I have never heard it sung this way live or on recordings but I was told by one singer this is the way it was intended by Verdi. Mr Shin also maintained his vocal form both for forte contributions as in the big chorus scenes as well as in piano sections such as the final duet, O terra addio.

Ms Nikolic managed the role of Amneris, using her height and stage presence to support her vocal powers. With some clever devices, such as clipping initial notes, she brought herself up to this gigantean role. But Ms Nikolic did not dominate vocal proceedings as should probably be the case in this opera. Some say the opera should be called “Amneris”! It is a shame that the audience was not able to hear a truly great opera singer in this role as before (eg. Cullen, Elkins, Connell, Elms).

Michael Lewis acquitted himself well as Amonasro. This dramatically important role still seems somehow vocally unrewarding. He does not get any of the ‘hit’ tunes, and he is not involved in the opening or closing moments of the drama.

None of the other cast members really shone out … but none was inadequate either. While Mr Shin and Ms Wilson each had an artistic success, it seems intriguing that they were chosen ahead of the numerous Australian singers of comparable or better repute.

English Conductor Richard Armstrong seemed to keep a governor on the tempi, rather like the flow of the Nile. At times one longed for some variation in this measured movement. The AOB orchestra was back, making glorious music in their confined pit, having missed the season opening. They were replaced for the Purcell and Handel works by a baroque ensemble (and THAT is another story). The brass was particularly secure this time around and six of their members played ceremonial trumpets on stage in costume … only to be briefly flummoxed by the sliding ‘people-mover’ which jerked them to a precipitous halt in mid-bar.

The all-essential chorus was well prepared musically and they did major on-stage choreography including synchronised lines of lateral movement.

The production suffered from the dictum ‘when in doubt, add more’ with some aspects being overdone. The use of a conveyor belt at the front of the stage started during the introductory music with Aida gliding across the stage while admiring and caressing a silent and statuesque Radames. This paired moving footway was used for people going in both directions, individually and in groups. Unfortunately, this clever apparatus became a distraction and was overdone. Did they have to justify its installation or its inventor? Other motifs, tricks and devices were used with taste and due reserve. Wings of Horus, Anubis, Thoth and mummy masks were in evidence. The costumes were fittingly sumptuous, featuring leopard skins and gold raiment.

Dance was an integral part of this opera - as originally intended for the Paris opera style. Murphy presented the audience with 8 dancers performing a complex and varied routine of original and tasteful callisthenics at the appropriate musical and dramatic moments. This was very special choreography and superb dancing of the highest order. And it received as large a round of applause as any of the singing.

Like his Turandot, this Aida production by Graeme Murphy will serve the company well as long as they use adequate singers. Once upon a time this company had sufficient resources to mount two parallel star casts for this great work, very largely from their own ranks. Now they cannot muster one. Sign of the times?

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

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29 May, 2009

Il Trovatore at the Met: May 2009

Il Trovatore, Met Opera, Friday 8th May 2009 8pm.

Conductor - Riccardo Frizza
Manrico - Marco Berti
Count De Luna - Zeljko Lucic
Leonora - Hasmik Papian
Azucena - Mzia Nioradze
Ferrando - Burak Bilgili
Inez - Laura Vlasak Nolen

This David McVicar opera production was a major improvement to the Graham Vick fiasco of 2001 yet it still had its weaknesses and one shocking event which I believe is beyond any good taste (see below).

Utilising the full revolve of the Met stage, the opera opened, like Don Giovanni, to an enormous wall with attached ‘full-height’, vertiginous stairway-to-heaven with a landing and a door mid-way. This became the backbone of the various scenes, front, side and angled. The sets were not fully realistic but stylised using rough rocks, a portcullis, monastic items, crucifix, anvils and enormous outdoor stake for burning witches.

The cast members were all excellent with the artists warming into their roles and vocal confidence improved in each of the 4 acts. There was one intermission between act 2 and 3 which added to the task for the principal singers.

Ms Papian as Leonora paced herself carefully for this long role but was unassailable by the last act where her D’amor sull’ali rosee and Miserere were followed by the fiendish cabaletta ‘Tu vedrai che amore in terra’ to great acclaim. Ms Nioradze was strong and dramatically credible as the gypsy witch.

As Manrico Mr Berti was excellent. His almost impossible task of “Ah si ben mio ..”, followed by “Di quella pira” was well executed (one verse of the latter). And there were cheers all round at his capable and exciting terminal high C.

At one point Mr Lucic as De Luna pulls out his sword, grasps it with his left hand and runs the blade through his clenched fingers to the sight of spurting blood which then haemorrhages visibly for the remainder of the scene. On his exit he wipes a red stain onto the castle wall. I found the unexpected episode to be shocking and the audience seemed to gasp and recoil as it was done. It was most distracting and unnecessary, bearing little relation to the story-line (such as it is). If it derived from the libretto (which I doubt) it also distracted from the words, music and subtitles. Blood brothers may be one thing, but self mutilation on stage is quite another.

Lucic’s ‘Il balen’ was a high point vocally along with the chorus and cabaletta following.

Mr Bilgili and Ms Nolen as Ferrando and Inez both had substantial and important voices which would have eclipsed lesser singers in the major roles.

The anvil chorus deserves special commendation, being the only realistic anvil use on stage I have seen. The chorus members were at one, strong-voiced and sympathetic to the piece. By chance the same week the Met was also performing the only other anvil song I know from opera. The first act of Wagner’s Siegfried makes quite a different, energetic workman‘s song - first performed 20 years after Verdi’s version.

Overall a very enjoyable performance … but a production which shows just how difficult it is to present this opera without major breaks and clunky scene changes. I vote for two or even three intermissions as Verdi intended.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

08 May, 2009

Cenerentola at the Met: May 2009

Cenerentola (Cinderella) Rossini Wed 6th May ‘09. The Metropolitan Opera, New York City.

The first person on stage in this brilliant comedy was Australian soprano Rachelle Durkin as an ‘ugly sister’. The title role was sung by sensational young Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca (pictured above in Met publicity shot). She played the perfect ‘ash to cash’ heroine including the final magnificent ‘atonement’ tour-de-force Naqui all’affano. She has a smooth, large and exciting voice without a hint of strain over a wide range.

African American tenor Lawrence Brownlee was also excellent, along with Corbelli, Alberghini and Relyea as the fine bass-baritone roles in this hilarious romp. Corbelli as the Baron on this occasion had played Prince Ramiro in 1997 showing both his versatility and longevity.

Mounted for Cecilia Bartoli, the 1997 production by Cesare Lievi is a fantasy with many clever and amusing moments. Conductor Maurizio Bennini.

The evening was filmed by ‘floating’ cameras in the auditorium and I gather is to be broadcast ‘live’ this Saturday (31st May in Australia). These Met broadcasts have brought high quality opera to every corner of the world - and at much lower cost than sitting in the opera house itself. Subsequent DVDs become available at modest cost, putting opera within reach of almost anyone.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

For my original notes on the premiere of this production in 1997 see

New York in springtime:

The Ring at the Met April/May 2009

The Ring operas Metropolitan Opera, New York. Starting on Monday 26th April 2009 Brief notes.

Das Rheingold was a triumph in almost every respect. The cast was led by German bass baritone Albert Dohmen as Wotan. His voice is accurate and warm with a strong high range as well as a reasonable low extension. He did not tire in the three operas whose drama Wotan the Wanderer fashions by his arrogance and miscalculations.

This may be the last time Domingo as Siegmund could or should do this ‘handsome teenager’ role in Walkure. But people may have said that 4 years ago when he did the same role in the same house, and he is still incredible. No reservations, not even the slightest vocally even though his old age naturally shows up the closer one sits. Unfortunately, he became ill during the Walkure of the following week and had to be replaced by Gary Lehman before the Wintersturm aria.

Rene Pape did the rather unrewarding role of Hunding while Adrianne Pieczonka was his beautiful and effective Sieglinde.

Katarina Dalayman is a glorious Brunnhilde. For absolutely no apparent reason she was loudly booed by a single man in the upper part of the theater and everyone (including the singer) seemed shocked. She had sung superbly. Her voice has a controlled hard steely edge just on occasions when she really wants to use it, such as some sopranos may have in a completely uncontrolled manner. So she has gifts, like a trill (and she’s got that too!), which just put her in her own league above the ordinary. An excellent Linda Watson did the Siegfried Brunnhilde for some reason - perhaps Ms Dalayman was too thin.

Christian Franz as Siegfried was excellent and did not appear to tire up to his untimely but rather necessary death. The ‘woofle’ heard from him on the broadcast the week before was almost completely absent in the theater on Saturday to my ear.

The cast of the whole Ring is balanced and nobody let the side down. Equally, no single singer particularly dominated either vocally or by taking the dramatic lime-light. Orchestra, soloists, chorus were all in top form. Maestro James Levine received multiple rapturous receptions at each act and final curtain.

This production of the Ring by Otto Schenk is now a museum piece. Like the liner QEII, it is 19th century technology and simply cannot be continued indefinitely. It has scrims, pulleys, models, back-lighting, anvils and every trick of the stage … but is now dated and in some cases tatty and nearing obsolescence. The scrim front paired curtains still failed to operate properly but it hardly mattered. There were a few clunks and squeaks between scenes (but for all I know these may have been present 20 years ago). To my best knowledge this production follows most closely to what Wagner ordered in his very detailed staging instructions. This includes underwater simulations, people disappearing on stage, transmutations, dragons being killed, smelting, rope binding, cooking, etc, etc. I was told by a Wagner expert that only Vienna in living memory has done comparable Rhine operas.

I have been fortunate enough to see this in 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2009 but this is the end of the line, sad to tell. A preview of the new proposed Met Ring on Tuesday 5th May was cancelled for some reason, hence little more is known about it.

I think that the Met is probably the only opera company to make money out of Wagner. The huge capacity opera house with excellent acoustics are factors. In their lead up, the company does two or three weekday performances of the two more popular operas, Rheingold and Walkure. The ‘first cycle’ is broadcast series of Saturday matinees over 5 weeks. These are broadcast live internationally (except Australia, of course). The company then does two complete cycles of Mon, Tues, Thurs and Sat of Rheingold, Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. Tickets were available for every performance of this particular cycle. Top seats were $400 but there were many seats available for prices down to $65 with standing room half that only available on the week of the operas. This is a sign of the times which are affecting New York as much or more. Restaurants, shops and businesses that have been going for generations are closing down. Hickey Freeman, Balducci, City Opera, OONY, Carnegie Hall have all been affected with ‘bail-out’ specials offered by many who are still trading.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

15 April, 2009

Crikey commentary on languishing opera company.

Opera Australia in shifty AGM lock-down

Our national opera company continues to behave like a naughty adolescent instead of the mature adult of 50 which it is. For the past few years one rule after another has been broken and nobody is holding the present management to account.

Uniquely, this year’s OA Annual General Meeting will be in Melbourne. No problem with that, but by the time it was announced, it was too late for Victorian subscribers to register. Also, many others from interstate will be unable to attend due to the awkward timing of 3pm on “Easter” Thursday April 9.

For the first time in a decade I did not received a notice about the AGM. I called the company to be told that I am no longer a voting “member”, despite fulfilling the simple criteria of contributing $160 to the company in a given year. I donate a modest sum each year and have two subscriptions. It may be that I did not tick the appropriate box or filled out the right form with my subscription or donations. Whatever, other subscribers and supporters may have done likewise. I now have the application forms but it is too late to register for this year’s meeting. Touché!

I discussed this matter with a current company insider. He also found it particularly odd, especially for a company supposedly open to public scrutiny and currently in the process of finding new artistic and musical administrators.

One wonders if holding a meeting away from head office at short notice on the Easter break is a sign of a “closed shop”. From various blogs and talk-back radio we know that there are some opera subscribers who are still keen to attend the AGM and possibly propose motions from the floor. Good luck, I say!

Back to the stage: like marathon runners, opera singers and their teachers have long held that sufficient rest is needed to recuperate from a “big sing” for their own health and vocal longevity. Most of the great operatic roles are in this category and famous singers of history would rarely do more than two such performances per week. To assist with the bottom line, Opera Australia has obliged singers to perform with just one day’s break on many occasions in the past few seasons. Some instances were of a Thursday evening performance and then a Saturday matinee, making even less than 48 hours between shows, a risk to tension and tonsil alike.

The company’s “Mission Statement” makes it clear that the company is to be involved (only) in opera and opera singers, purveying “opera of excellence that excites audiences and develops and sustains the art form in Australia”. For this it receives substantial government funding both State and Federal. There is no mention of musical comedy in the Mission Statement.

The Sydney opera gala opening for 2008 was My Fair Lady which ran for one of the longest seasons ever (in three different theatres!). The show did not employ many opera singers, nor did it fulfil the obligations of the mission statement. While the company does Gilbert and Sullivan operettas every few years at the end of the season, we now find musical comedy as a major activity, clearly at the expense of mainstream opera. Other companies perform high quality musical comedies but there are few alternative providers of opera. Tax payers might well ask where their funds are going. While the company justifies this by box office receipts, they could also install poker machines in the Green Room with the same outcome to profits.

The final paragraph of the company’s Mission Statement says that they will: “Be rigorous in self-examination and open to informed, outside evaluation of both our successes and failures”. I can see no sign of this from management or board.

Until there is a catharsis, absolution and re-statement of intention from management I for one will remain sceptical about this board deciding on the new musical and artistic administrators. It is more like a war cabinet, delightful and open individually perhaps, but secretive and closed to its public as a board.

One wishes the company well in the search for new leadership. There is still much to admire aboard this rudderless ship. One guide from this perplexed subscriber might be that rather than a profit, this company needs a prophet to lead it out of its current woes. An open discussion at a well attended AGM would do no harm either.

Dr Byrne runs an addiction clinic in Redfern, NSW.

22 March, 2009

Werther and Butterfly at Sydney Opera House.

‘Werther’ by Massenet at Sydney Opera House Thurs 12th March 2009
Madame Butterfly long summer/autumn season continued on 16th March.

Dear readers,

Werther is being performed with a marvellous cast in Sydney for the next week or so and Massenet fans should not miss out. The opening played to a half empty house on Thursday in stark contrast to Monday’s excellent performance of Madame Butterfly which was packed out.

An expert on French opera wrote that Werther is ‘one of Massenet’s finest creations’ and that the title role a great part for a truly gifted tenor … and apparently many famous tenors claimed it as one of their favourites.

Still a Werther novice, I managed to raise a few goose bumps but nothing to compare with Manon … which may be just unfamiliarity and ignorance of the genre on my part.

This Elijah Moshinsky production is very clever (a shame his name is spelt Moshinksy in the cast list). The opera opened with a huge silk sheet covering almost everything on stage: tables, chairs, bicycle, toys, fence, etc. As the prelude progressed it was gradually pulled away, ‘sucked’ into a hole in the middle of the stage! A weird and wonderful way to expose the scena of bright green grass, garden furniture, classic entrance architrave, etcetera.

Aldo Di Toro, a graduate of WA Conservatorium, played the title role with flair and confidence. He was little short of magnificent in both vocal lines and characterisation as well as cutting a fine figure on stage. His only great pot-boiler, “Pourquoi me reveiller” was indeed moving (and the only part of the opera I really warm to). After shooting himself in the next scene the drama seemed interminable … but of course others will disagree and want it even longer. I compare it with the (female) death scene of Manon which I once found boring but now adore every note!

Canadian mezzo-soprano Michele Losier was engaged at the last minute as Charlotte since Pamela Helen Steven had withdrawn after the tragic death of her husband, Richard Hickox. Ms Losier was very fine, saving the best to the last act. It is still odd that an Australian mezzo-sopranos was not asked to do the role (Kirsti Harms had a major success in the last run). Soprano Sarah Crane as Sophie was also well cast in her couple of memorable scenes (Taryn Fiebig was originally billed to do the role). The supporting and character roles were also excellent, notably Stephen Smith as Schmidt and Stephen Bennett as Le Bailli.

The orchestra was conducted by Emmanuel Plasson, a most didactic, athletic maestro who nearly danced on his podium at times.

The result was very high quality opera yet one looked around the auditorium with regret considering all the empty seats. It is clear that Sydney only has a small audience for these lesser known operas. People who are keen on these ‘connoisseur’ pieces will travel for such performances. But nobody is on a limitless budget and so to have Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the same time may be asking too much for this ‘niche’ audience. Some must have agonised about which to see, especially when neither sadly were being televised or put onto video, as far as I know. The same was true of Billy Budd and Makropulos Case being done simultaneously last year, a financial disaster one suspects at the same time as triumphs artistically, but not committed to video which is yet another fault of the current management and board who seem to believe that nothing matters but the bottom line.

Just as there are more Papaganos in this world than Taminos … so there is a large base of subscribers who pay top money for what one might call the “DEF” of opera or the middle ranking or timelessly popular operas: Tosca, Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata, Pearlfishers, Cav/Pag, Faust, Cosi, Don Pasquale, Flying Dutchman, Barber, Cenerentola, (there are 25-50 more in this category). There is less interest in the rarer master-pieces (including Britten, Janacek, R. Strauss, etc) despite their undoubted success artistically … even if savants wax lyrical about the details … these are works which have rarely filled opera houses for very long.

It is still a privilege to be able to attend a range of such operas, faults and all, at some distance from the rest of the world with a relatively small population base as Sydney and Melbourne. It is to be hoped that the new artistic and musical director of the company will be able to bring more balance and cohesion to things. For a start, the company needs to follow some basic rules of the theatre. The second performance of Werther was a hair-raising 48 hours after the opening instead of 72, the traditional minimum for grand opera. No excuses!

Madama Butterfly - Monday 16th March 2009 - Sydney Opera House.

I had wanted to hear the second cast of the Puccini only to find that Antoinette Halloran had finished her run and Cheryl Barker was back as Cio-cio-san 10 weeks later in this long season. She did not disappoint, after a rather shaky start in which her high notes developed an ugly beat (Joan Sutherland used to do the same), she then warmed up to give a memorable dramatic delivery. Rosario La Spina was Pinkerton. He appears to have put on more weight but his glorious voice is still perfect for this part. I am getting goose-bumps just writing about it. His Addio fiorito asil was sensational.

Catherine Carby played a suitably mournful Suzuki. Barry Ryan was an adequate ambassador, also doleful. Particularly moving was Andrew Jones as Yamadori. It is nice to hear a large, beautiful, well projected voice in someone who can act as well.

This opera is indeed a ‘recession buster’. After a half empty Thursday night gala opening of Werther last week we now had a packed and enthusiastic house on a non-subscription Monday night. I did not recognise one single face in the theatre or foyers or bars or taxi queue … which is unusual for ‘small-town’ Sydney. It may indicate a new or different audience. There was no cruise liner in dock and most looked like relaxed locals, out for the night. I suppose regular opera goers who wanted to hear Butterfly had already had their many chances. And there is still another performance next Monday.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
Dr Andrew Byrne MB BS (Syd) FAChAM (RACP)
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07 March, 2009

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Sydney Opera House 3 March 09.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Sydney Opera House Tuesday 3rd March 2009.

Katerina - Susan Bullock
Zinovy - David Corcoran
Boris - John Wegner
Sergei - Simon O’Neill
Orthodox Priest - Gennadi Dubinsky
Police Chief - Warwick Fyfe
Drunkard - Kanen Breen
Convict - Jud Arthur
Female convict/Cook - Jacqueline Dark
Sergeant - Richard Alexander

Conductor - Richard Armstrong
Director - Francesca Zambello
Chorus master - Michael Black
First Violin - Aubrey Murphy

Music - Dmitry Shostakovich
Libretto by Alexander Preis and the composer
In English, with titles.

Dear Colleagues,

This re-staging was one of the most raunchy, “in-your-face” musical-vocal dramas I have ever seen. It was also one of the best cast operas we have seen from the national company. Clearly the company management knew what it was doing when aiming at excellence. In a huge cast, they chose high quality international stars as well as local talent incredibly well matched to the stage and vocal requirements. Kanen Breen as the frail drunkard almost stole the show in his brilliant scene and sequel. Warwick Fyfe likewise as police commissioner took control with his vocal power and rough edges, perfectly suited to the role.

Russian born bass Gennadi Dubinsky sang and acted a creditable Orthodox priest, compulsively lying to his flock as priests do. I gather this talented man has been hidden as an understudy. The company seems not to give their ‘cover’ singers exposure like the Met and elsewhere. And sometimes the ‘covers’ are better than the engaged performers.

The major stars of the night were tenor Simon O’Neill and soprano Susan Bullock. With these incredibly taxing vocal roles they both also acted creditably in what was everything from rape, assault, conspiracy, double murder, sex on stage and final denouement of suicide and abandonment in Siberia. The sex may have been simulated … but in three or more Karma Sutra positions in an excruciating burst of energy. The orchestral accompaniment included double bassoon and tuba in over-drive along with rhythmic cadences, hasty progressions and hesitations followed by major plosive ejaculations. There was some brief tenderness but only very brief.

Ms Bullock has a large, focussed and radiant soprano voice. She has sung Brunhilde at Covent Garden. Her portrayal here was highly effective as she looked sexy and revealed the longings of a neglected young wife.

The philandering lover, Simon O’Neill, although cutting an imposing figure, sang and acted brilliantly. His voice is penetrating, accurate and beautiful. His CV is staggering, including Florestan, Siegmund and Parsifal.

John Wegner played the father in law who is eventually killed by rat bait in the mushrooms after gratuitous taunts and violence. As always, he was vocally and dramatically exemplary.

Shostakovich chose a dour and depressing story for his shocking opera. Almost everything represented if is drab and boring. The opera covered much that is negative in life, starting with just one precipitated extra-marital fling. We were made to feel the cold, hunger, boredom, crowd anger, filth, alcoholism, violence, loveless marriage, hateful in-laws and destitution. For me at least, balancing beauty was hard to find. The sets were appropriately drab: white dirty bathroom tiles, plastic props, single strip fluorescent lights. The clothing was all dreary. Yet this undoubted masterpiece is lost on me (and a lot of patrons who did not return after the intermission).

There was some contrast with the final death camp scene including a rousing chorus of prisoners and some of the brass sections from the auditorium raised goose bumps on even this crusty subscriber’s flesh. The chorus, orchestra and conductor deserve the highest acclaim in this challenging and unfamiliar work.

The opera company management assembled all the elements which make for truly great opera. It was the second time recently that this was done (Billy Budd was the other). Like my criticism at that time, it is a great tragedy for Shostakovich fans that this will apparently not be televised or videoed. It is unlikely that such a strong cast and production will be assembled anywhere in the world for a very long time. In stark contrast to this world-class opera production, most of the other season operas have glaring deficits with few international standard star artists. This opera had three or four (or five if you include the conductor).

The clear ‘quality bias’ of the company towards the 20th century repertoire (eg. Makropulos Case and Arabella - which were also excellent) is a boon for opera goers who like that sort of thing. However, as a result many standard repertory works are performed on a mediocre level and others displaced altogether by long seasons of over-exposed popular works (La Boheme, Carmen, Butterfly and My Fair Lady). In this way, subscribers may have been deprived of choices (and opera singers of jobs, experience and exposure). There is also a dearth of star performers in these works, most clearly exemplified in the embarrassing La Boheme season which was shown on “ABCTV-2”, a station some sets don’t even receive. In the circumstances that might be as well.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

22 February, 2009

Joan Sutherland Society concert at St Pauls Burwood.

Lucia di Lammermoor 50th Anniversary Concert. Sunday 15th February 2009 2pm. St Paul’s Church, Burwood.

Dear Reader,

Doug Cremer and the Joan Sutherland Society have done themselves proud with an afternoon of great singing at St Paul's Church in the presence of some divas of the past and the present.

Lauris Elms, Morag Beaton, Malcolm Donnelly and Amanda Thane were in the audience to support the younger singers in an adventurous program. There were 2 Lieder excerpts (Brahms), grand opera (Bizet, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner) with two Italian canzone (Musica proibita; Cor ingrato) and three items from light operas/musicals (If I were a rich man; Gendames' duet; Anything you can do). The afternoon finished with the rather rude English folk song 'Oliver Cromwell' which ends "If you want any more you can sing it yourself!"

The afternoon was compered by tenor Glenn Winslade. Sharolyn Kimmorley played the ivories with aplomb as ever. I hope she is never taken for granted. We were reminded that Ms Kimmorley was belatedly honoured in this year’s Australia Day awards for her services to singing and singers. With ease she straddled the different styles, solos, duets and two large concerted pieces, turning pages on her own.

The hit of the afternoon for me was Daniel Sumegi singing Banquo's aria from 'that opera'. It shows off his deep, expressive voice in a more dynamic way than in Mozart. As in Nabucco, he reaches the heights and limits of his fach ... and the genre. Then, to show his versatility he joined in the Lucia sextet, “We run them in” duet (with John Wegner) and finally the "I can do anything" duet (with Domenica Matthews).

Mr Wegner was splendid in ‘If I were a rich man’ from Fiddler on the Roof as well as doing a great rendition of Escamillo's difficult Toreador aria.

Michael Lewis and his wife Nicole Youl sang some fine Brahms to kick off the program, first reading the English translations for our benefit which was most helpful. Lewis then sang the first act baritone aria from Lucia (‘Cruda funesta’) including the fiendishly difficult cabaletta.

Ms Youl sang Dich teure Halle with confidence, strength and that edge Wagnerian sopranos need. Perhaps this is the direction she is headed after the current excellent Santuzzas finished up this weekend.

In the absence of the indisposed Mr Andrew Goodwin, Christopher Hillier, a baritone in the OA chorus, stood in at short notice, singing a very fine 'Bella si come un angelo' from Don Pasquale as well as Musica proibita. Both were class acts indeed for his light and pleasant voice.

Stephen Smith, with his indelible Pacific smile sang 'Una furtiva lagrima', followed in the second half by Cor Ingrato. He also featured prominently in the sextet from Lucia. After a great success as a very energetic Beppe in Pagliacci this season, he is a talent to watch.

Domenica Matthews and Teresa la Rocca did the program's first opera excerpt, Hoffmann's famous 'Barcarolle'. They both also sang in the Lucia sextet ‘Che mi freni’ while Ms la Rocca sang a creditable ‘E strano .. Ah forse lui .. Sempre Libera’ from La Traviata. She tackled the hard options on both, each at her considerable and exciting limits.

This concert was in memory of Deborah Riedel who died recently after a long battle with cancer. The speaker reminded us of her magnificent Norma duet at a previous St Paul’s concert with Fiona Janes as Adalgesa.

We were told to look forward to the next event in which it is hoped Dame Joan and Richard Bonynge may ajudicate the most deserving young singers.

Unsurprisingly there was no (apparent) representative of the opera company present - but that is just what happens in a company bereft of direction. At a recent performance of Cav/Pag I attended there was no accompanist for the Siciliana which Dennis O'Neill bravely sang in its entirety alone, happily ending the long aria on the right note for the massive orchestral segue. Does the company have any standards? The singing was very fine yet the house was not well sold and there is a feeling of inertia rather than enthusiasm. Let's hope there is a renaissance under new management, and soon.

Comments by Andrew Byrne.

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28 January, 2009

The Magic Flute. Sydney Opera House. Thursday 22nd Jan 2009. Don't miss it!

The Magic Flute. Sydney Opera House. 7.30pm Thursday 22nd Jan 2009.

Dear Colleagues,

This David Freeman production is a smash hit for the Sydney Summer Festival and I recommend everyone should consider getting a ticket if they like that sort of thing or if they are new to Flute. Don’t be put off by the price since tickets are freely available from $42 mid-week … in restricted view positions in the middle loges - Y / B which were empty on opening night. While I find this opera (or ‘singspiel’ more correctly) has long dull patches, it is still a favourite with audiences down the ages. And it contains some of the most glorious arias ever written, linked as they are by a somewhat tiresome text akin to a pantomime or moral play. Glyndebourne had the right idea 20 years ago by cutting all the talking!

My comments are incomplete as I had to leave shortly after the second Queen of Night’s aria - which was brilliantly sung by Emma Pearson. She was indeed a splendid Queen of Night in every respect. After her stratospheric second aria she received a roar of cheers and acclaim from the audience. Her vocal and dramatic performance had been dazzling indeed - including her first act O zittre nicht which was sung sitting in an oversized alabaster illuminated quarter moon suspended by wires high above the stage. She deserves risk money!

Daniel Sumegi as Sarastro sings the haunting In diesen heil'gen Hallen which has some of the lowest notes written. The previous aria had the highest! Mozart must have been a mean machine … or else he disliked singers!

It seemed curious that Emma Matthews was playing Pamina again since she is so ideally suited to the great coloratura roles like Lucia. Marilyn Horne said in a master class that once a soprano had the fiendishly difficult Ach! Ich fuhls ‘in the voice’, the rest of this role was a ‘walk-over’. Matthews’ Konstanze in Seraglio two years ago was excellent and perfectly suited to her remarkably agile voice. She could also sing the Queen of Night I imagine.

Warwick Fyfe as the bird man was a bit ‘rough and ready’ and the dialogue he was given sounded ‘Ocker’ and even embarrassing at times. He even came on stage with his personal barbecue and tinnies. And he has a large voice and sings in tune.

Kanen Breen was Monostatos and this is possibly the best thing I have seen/heard him do. And his mostly original dialogue, being quite poignant with the new white house incumbent this past week. Stephen Bennett is back as an excellent Masonic mentor, as was his priestly partner in Graham MacFarlane.

Mr Goodwin makes a fine Tamino, a difficult role somewhere between cantor singing and performing in a radio play. The high point for me is the famous portrait aria.

Ollivier-Phillipe Cuneo conducted confidently and the brass players did themselves proud on this occasion.

The clever and quirky production looks to be set in the Amazon jungle … vines and unexpected animals/birds everywhere in dark shadows. Other sections seem to take place in a giant pietra dura jewel box. As valid as any other interpretation, I suppose, considering it is a fantasy work … and Schikaneder would probably be delighted (the impresario also played Papageno at the opening). It is amazing to know that this was written in the same period as La Clemenza di Tito in the final months of Mozart’s short but productive life.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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15 January, 2009

Cav and Pag compete favourably with Sydney Festival.

Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci at the Sydney Opera House Sat 10th Jan 2009

Cavalleria Rusticana - Mascagni
Turiddù - Dennis O’Neill
Santuzza - Nicole Youl
Mama Lucia - Jaqueline Dark
Alfio - Jonathan Summers
Lola - Domenica Matthews

I Pagliacci - Leoncavallo
Tonio - Jonathan Summers
Canio - Dennis O’Neill
Nedda - Amelia Farrugia
Peppe - Stephen Smith
Silvio - José Carbo
Directed by Andrew Sinclair
Sets by Shaun Gurton
Conductor Andrea Licata

Dear Colleagues,

Renowned baritone Jonathan Summers provided the dramatic and to some extent the vocal focus for this pair of immaculate thriller operas. He demonstrated a staggering depth of character, volume and texture of vocal line and showed what it is to be a star of the operatic stage. At the end of his moving prologue aria “Si puo?“ he nailed an A flat which seemed unassailable.

His tenor counterpart in both operas was Welshman Dennis O’Neill who showed equal mastery of the art. Again, there were fast, slow, high and low to show off his prodigious talents, nowhere more so than in the clown’s dressing-room aria, ‘Vesti la giubba’.

Ms Youl was ideally suited to the role of Santuzza. Her ‘Regina cœli’ and ‘Ineggiamo’ scene was high art indeed with the freeze/flashback very cleverly staged using blacked out rear and fly lighting with linear precision indicating pews in a church. The return to the village square and conversation between the excommunicated and mother in law seemingly seamless.

Ms Farrugia played a suitable Nedda and had all it takes dramatically and vocally even though the role is unlike her usual (everyone has to be adaptable in this day and age). Ms Domenica Matthews played a sexy and detached Lola.

Village lover Silvio was played brilliantly by Jose Carbo. This smaller role is often left to a lesser talent but Mr Carbo looked the part in white poplin, his voice coming over as confident, even and large, befitting his engagement at La Scala this year.

I had forgotten that after the scripted bloodshed, Canio stabs himself at the end of I Pagliacci which was an added dramatic shock to an action-packed evening of opera.

Mr Licata conducted with gusto and flair with all points going to the woodwinds and the prominent scoring especially for flute and bassoon. I must say that again there were jarring noises from the brass, evidently the trumpet section on several occasions and one wonders if there is a problem there needing attention.

I note from the new season schedule that the company is still calling on singers to do major roles with only one day’s break on occasions. Nobody in the company seems to heed history, medical and occupational health experts, singing teachers or agents. The company gives … and the company takes away. It is like the editor’s decision being so very final. If our singers had a strong union like the orchestra this would never have been allowed to happen, at least not without serious danger money being paid.

It is hard to imagine that the opera company management has such entrenched problems when opera of this high standard is being put on. Yet operas are scheduled 2 to 3 years ahead of time … and the first two operas of the season are repeats of standard repertoire using known talents with little if any ‘risk’ or exposure.

Following the sudden death of maestro Richard Hickox in November, another untimely and tragic loss this past week will also impact upon opera in Australia with the passing of soprano Deborah Riedel after a long battle with cancer. Our sympathies and thoughts go to her family and friends at this difficult time.

Ms Riedel, 50, had prodigious talents in both dramatic and coloratura roles. Her stage skills were well honed and she had consistently favourable notices in her formidable international career. She sang in many of the great opera houses and worked with some of the world’s top talents including Jose Carreras, Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. Despite this, and along with numerous other top Australian artists, Ms Riedel was engaged less and less by the national company in favour of a small group of younger, ‘safer’ and perhaps more amenable female singers. The opera company’s initial media release (since corrected) had Ms Riedel performing in the 50th anniversary gala concert when in fact she was in the audience. It is all very sad. Rest in peace. The funeral is on Friday morning.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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03 January, 2009

Resplendent Madame Butterfly at Sydney Opera House.

Madame Butterfly - Sydney Opera House Tuesday 30th December 2008, 7.30pm.

Cio-cio-san - Cheryl Barker
Pinkerton - Julian Gavin
Sharpless - Barry Ryan
Suzuki - Catherine Carby
Cond. - Shao-Chia Lu

Dear Colleagues,

This performance of Butterfly was a triumph in every way. It was a worthy outing of Puccini’s masterpiece and an important psychological threshold for a company under stress from several angles, culminating in the sudden death of Maestro Richard Hickox last month in the UK.

Ms Barker is unrivalled in Australia today as Cio-cio-san. While she did this role in 1997 with charm and poise, the intervening years have not diminished her powers. Puccini’s heroine is one of the most difficult operatic characters, needing to look like a delicate Japanese teenager yet sing like a Walkurie!

Returned Australian Julian Gavin is every bit of the international star tenor and his Pinkerton is worthy indeed. The voice is well supported and secure up to a resplendent top. His dramatic presence is such that he was given some ‘in character’ boos at the end. Puccini and his librettists made sure that this role was the ultimate insult for American foreign policy … some things never change … but this IS opera, after all!

Barry Ryan looks and sounds like a competent comprimario singer which is just fine for an embassy delegate, especially one without an aria. The other brief but important roles were also well cast.

Not since the Sutherland days had I seen virtually every single seat occupied at the Sydney Opera House. Balcony boxes, rear rows and standing room were all occupied … and few if any tickets appeared to have been given away, a common practice last season. On the other hand, an ambitious season of 23 performances may be stretching the opera market beyond its boundaries. Also, the season opening, usually the 2nd or 3rd of January, had been advanced by 4 days, altering the plans of all Gala patrons who renewed. This strategy appears to have paid off so far. Those wishing to hear the vocal and dramatic chemistry between Julian Gavin and Ms Barker will have to be quick as they only sing together for another 5 performances with the season continuing for three full months (with cast changes).

The orchestra under Taiwanese Mr Lu played well but we seem to have to tolerate frequent blurts and off pitch notes from the brass section, over which Mr Lu probably has little control.

I personally find this production irritating and unsympathetic. It seems to be a slowed down version of Miss Saigon which has the same story line. Yet it is popular with the crowds and that is what matters these days.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
Dr Andrew Byrne MB BS (Syd) FAChAM (RACP)
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Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables.