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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 ..