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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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