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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,
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