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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Canadian mezzo-soprano Michele Losier was engaged at the last minute as Charlotte since Pamela Helen Steven had withdrawn after the tragic death of her husband, Richard Hickox.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)
Dependency Medicine,
75 Redfern Street, Redfern,
New South Wales, 2016, Australia
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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 ..