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27 August, 2010

La Sonnambula - Richard Bonynge's final performance in Australia (?).

La Sonnambula Tues 24th August 2010 (final season performance).

A pessimist might say this was the last vestige of the ‘golden age’ of opera in Australia.  Whatever one’s predictions for the federal election outcome or other less important games of chance, this evening marked the final scheduled Australian performance for Australia’s greatest living conductor [Charles Mackerras, the only other contender, died just a few weeks ago]. 

Richard Bonynge’s exemplary career has spanned four decades with the company.  This rarely performed Bellini masterpiece was last done professionally in Australia in 1965 to my best knowledge (also under Bonynge’s baton).  Its rarity is because it is ‘tough’.  Tough casting, tough settings - it could easily made to look trite dramatically and ‘chocolate box’ scenically in its Helvetian alpine location.  Most of all, of course, it has tough tessitura - two sopranos, one tenor and a bass baritone need to be of the highest order.  

Yet the evening went by without a hitch in a charming new production.  Emma Matthews is the star of the night - and despite being overworked by the company’s punishing roster, her voice sounded fresh and light with a dazzling top register.  This she uses with style and taste, only occasionally moving into the ‘showy’ category.  Her penultimate phenomenal sustained F with orchestra and chorus was indeed over-the-top.  In Act I, ‘Come per me sereno … Sovra’il sen la man mi posa’ set a high standard indeed.  This was well matched by Stephen Bennett in his haunting ‘Vi ravisso’ with slightly ornamented second verse cabaletta.  One wonders if it was intentional to make him look like Basel Fawlty in Act II. Ms Gore also did some extraordinary things with her extended upper register, especially in her bridal aria in Act II.  From the opening lines her ‘Lisa’ plays Amina’s rival for Elvino’s affections. 

Mr Di Toro was the ‘weak’ link, if there was one, yet he was anything but weak.  He has a habit of singing some phrases and notes pianissimo, broadening into a full voice forte and retreating again, something like a waxing and waning radio which is off-station or during a storm.  This may be a return to a classical style of singing but was unfamiliar to me.  At times he rose to greatness, especially in Act II.  He was never inadequate.  Of course we are inevitably comparing these singers with Pavarotti, Sutherland and Ghiaurov which is hardly fair. 

For this auspicious and yet in some ways unfortunate occasion, after the final performance, there were speeches on the stage with Moffatt Oxenbould telling glowing snippets from the 36 years that Maestro Bonynge had been a part of the company.  A crystal bowl trophy for “life membership” was given by current General Manager, Adrian Collette who spoke briefly. 

Maestro himself then said some words of thanks, after which we were treated to some tickertape and streamers.  While this was a moving tribute, it was poignant that Bonynge has apparently not been asked back to conduct with the company for future seasons.  The lauded maestro even announced that in fact he was ‘still alive’ and ‘available’ (in case anyone in Sydney was interested).  He looked fit and youthful considering his (almost) 80 years.  I was told that he is engaged to conduct at La Scala. 

The particularly awkward situation on stage had the makings of another opera.  It was yet another reminder of the many misguided decisions the opera management has made in recent years, moving it further and further from its audience and its own mission statement.  No wonder they cannot sell seats - so few were sold to a recent performance that apparently the dress circle was closed for the evening.  The company presents fewer real stars, less real opera and much, much more spin.  Just read the hype in the new season’s brochure which came out this week!  It says that numerous singers are in great demand around the world … yet they are the same old singers as we have heard for years with only a couple of international names for select performances.  The company is putting on 17 Butterfly performances, 27 of La Boheme, 20 of Merry Widow, 15 Don Giovanni, 8 Macbeth, 8 Lakme and 22 Carmen.  Why the company would break formulae used here successfully for half a century is beyond my comprehension. 

As if to cement the memories of a once great opera company some of the many unsold seats were given (at least I hope they were given) to a bevy of retired veteran singers from the Bonynge years, almost all being of a higher calibre than most of the current incumbents: Robert Allman, Clifford Grant, Geoffery Chard, Anson Austin, Maureen Howard, Donald Shanks, Lamberto Furlan, Andrew Dalton and John Pringle to name just a few.  Bernadette Cullen and Fiona Janes were also present .. evidently there was also a small back-stage reception afterwards to honour Mr Bonynge.  This is the Australian tall poppy syndrome taken to a ridiculous redundancy.  They could have put on a big gala performance for the 80th birthday … and possibly made some money for the company while displaying some new and old operatic talent. 

There were many other notable people in the audience among the regular Tuesday night subscribers.  One couple I spoke to had been disappointed that their normal subscription had Ms Matthews’ alternative singing and thus they returned to hear this final performance with the company’s hottest property. 

It was telling that this high quality performance of such an operatic masterpiece still had about 250 empty seats (besides the many subsidised for the VIPs).  It is hard to conceive that this company would be capable of putting on Wagner’s Ring operas as announced this week for Melbourne in 2013. 

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

07 August, 2010

La Sonnambula at the Sydney Opera House

La Sonnambula, Vincenzo Bellini. Sydney Opera House, Thursday 5th August 2010

Dear Colleagues, 

This bel canto opera was ripping and gripping from start to finish.  It was a delight and a pleasure to finally see a fully mounted production of this immortal opera - one of my own favourites, along with Norma.  And for those keen to hear high notes this may have broken some records! 

Richard Bonynge, who turns 80 this month, was completely at home in the pit and his orchestra responded in kind. 

The production was charming, using a three sided palisade with painted mountains putting us in a Swiss valley.  The village centre was a large raised square wooden platform set on an angle and positioned on the now ubiquitous stage revolve.  Mercifully, the turning of this was used sparingly but only occasionally with any particular dramatic purpose.  Projections were only used for some finale flooring, also for no apparent reason.

The story of La Sonnambula is a variation on the theme of boy-meets-girl where girl ‘two-times’ boy and is rejected, only to be exonerated using the sleepwalking defence.  Ask any lawyer!  Gilbert and Sullivan would have been proud, 50 years later!  And there were audience chuckles at times, so rapid were some of the changed affections. [*see a historical note on somnambulism down the ages by Dr Colin Brewer, link below]

Emma Matthews has a voice which is light-years away from Joan Sutherland’s yet she performs many of the same roles in an exemplary fashion.  Some may say Matthews is even more credible than La Stupenda in this opera.  Her act I set piece ‘Come per me sereno … sovra il sen la man mi posa’ was of a high standard which was even excelled in the act II tour-de-force culminating in ‘Ah non giunge, uman pensiero’. 

Stephen Bennett was an excellent choice for the Count.  It is just a shame that this company overlooked him in favour of inferior artists for a decade.  He was dressed to look like Basil Faulty in Act II.  His ‘Vi ravviso’ was ravishing but I heard a complaint that he did not ornament the second verse of the cabaletta, a mortal sin in the view of the complainant, at least for bel canto reprises.  I was also told that the singer playing the Count in a production of this opera by Pacific Opera last year was in the chorus of the present production.  I believe that another chorus member played Elvino in the Rockdale amateur production I saw (twice) in 2002.  To my knowledge this opera has not been performed by a professional company in Australia for many years, probably not since 1965 - when it had the same conductor! 

Our tenor lover was played by Aldo di Toro who seemed a little ill at ease in the first half when he avoided some high options and had some ‘wooliness’ of tone.  He made up for it in the second with sensitive singing and one particularly stunning high held note with the chorus, who also sang well.  The chorus and orchestra remain the backbone of this company.

Ms Lorena Gore played the jealous rival with great aplomb.  It was extraordinary that the two sopranos seemed to be competing in their final two nuptial scenes (to the same man!).  Each sang a rapturous stretta ending in a penultimate sustained F natural followed by a B flat. This is the most phenomenal, glass shattering, ear splitting perfect cadence that, while it might offend some, is also a great draw-card for the die-hard opera goer.  One could dine out on a lesser story for years.  The degree of difficulty is very great and few opera companies would be able to present this sort of thing on their stages in a lifetime … but to have two sopranos doing it on the one night is exceptional and extraordinary, regardless of the rest of the show, in my view.  Each of the high notes was a MOST exciting punctuation of what was balanced and beautiful singing - which is the very meaning of bel canto. 

I was surprised to learn that the company is doing this opera five times in 8 days which may also be a world record - but a worrying one to my medical opinion. On one night the lead soprano is replaced by Ms Gore and her role, Lisa, is played by a third soprano. It is still a gruelling schedule which breaks a long-held rule in major theatres for major roles that there are always two rest days between performances. A prominent ENT surgeon informed me that most singers he has examined the day after singing a major role have haemorrhages and exudates on their larynx. This must take time to heal. Do marathon runners have rest rules? It was highly disappointing that this opening night had many, many empty seats as well as the now familiar coterie of familiar freebie faces - some being only distantly related to the company (even ex-employees). It is clear that the company’s marketing and the ~$300 top ticket price need to be reviewed to prevent the company going backwards financially. The management’s decision to eliminate the cheap D reserve “entry level” tickets also needs to be reviewed. While the top price is about the same at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, the cheapest seat being advertised for the Sydney Opera House is still over $100, while over 1000 seats each night at the Met are under $50. Even the (tiny) number of standing room positions in Sydney was reduced and nothing done to replace this market for young or poor or would-be opera enthusiasts.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

This tiny video clip is of the second half of the final aria/chorus from the OA Melbourne production recently …
La Sonnambula finale in Melbourne 2010

* Somnambulism down the ages by Dr Colin Brewer.

Andrew Byrne’s grandfather's letters circa 1924

Somnambulism down the ages.



Re-published here on the occasion of the first professional season of the opera in Australia since 1965 (and with the same conductor, Richard Bonynge).

Written by Dr Colin Brewer. Medical Director, The Stapleford Centre.


Amina was lucky. The Swiss are presumably no more prone to sleep-walking than any other nation but in late 20th Century Basel, an episode chillingly similar to the one in the last act of La Sonnambula ended not in joyous reconciliation but in serious injury and would have been fatal in Amina's time. A seventeen year old boy somnambulated straight out of his bedroom window onto the grass six floors below. He suffered several fractures and his spleen, stomach, colon and other useful abdominal organs burst through his diaphragm into his chest cavity but after some clever anaesthesia and stitch-work, he recovered completely. In a case reported from America, the somnambulist got as far as the window ledge of his 35th floor apartment before waking.

In one respect this young Swiss was more typical than his operatic counterpart. Most sleepwalkers are boys but most of them are not yet teenagers. In children between the ages of 4 and 6, sleepwalking is so common (up to a third have at least one episode) as to constitute a normal variant. Like bedwetting (from which, significantly, the Swiss boy also suffered) it is usually due to a slight delay in the growth, maturity and coordination of the brain and like bedwetting, most people grow out of it without treatment.

Sleep, for the technically minded, has several stages which are clearly demarcated by changes in the pattern of waves seen on the electroencephalogram (EEG) - a recording of the brain's electrical activity similar in principle to the more familiar electrocardiogram but more difficult to interpret because the brain is a much more complex organ than the heart. Normally, we pass through sleep stages 1 to 4, characterised by progressively slower waves on the EEG. This progression is followed by periods of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep - the stage most closely associated with dreaming, during which the brain is relatively active and, as the name indicates, the eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. Anyone who has watched a sleeping dog apparently chasing an imaginary cat may have seen something like this phenomenon. A few further cycles of stages 1-4 sleep followed by REM sleep occur before waking. Perhaps surprisingly, sleepwalking (which sometimes runs in families) does not usually occur during REM sleep but in the deeper stages - 3 to 4 - of non-REM sleep. Stage 3-4 sleep is most frequent in children and usually disappears (as, therefore, does sleep-walking) after the age of 40.

Somnambulists usually have blank expressions and seem to be indifferent to their surroundings. Their behaviour during the episodes, which typically last only a few minutes, often seems clumsy, purposeless or trivial but sometimes involves complex actions. If they wake up before returning to their own bed, they are often confused for a few moments and the usual advice is not to wake them unless they are in imminent danger. Sadly, they don't usually speak, let alone sing, but in many important respects,
Sonnambula presents a clinically accurate picture, including the fact that somnambulism is commonest during the early part of the night. (And just as well: it might be difficult to devise a convincing plot that required the entire population of the village to be out and about and in chorus mode at 4 am)

Like most disturbances of human behaviour, sleepwalking can easily lead to arguments between those in the neuropsychiatric camp who think that the main problem is an abnormality in brain function (for which medication might, in principle, be helpful) and those of the psychodynamic persuasion who favour largely or exclusively psychological explanations and remedies. These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, of course. A physical abnormality affecting the brain or any other organ may be made worse by strong emotions. However, if the underlying physical abnormality or vulnerability isn't there in the first place, the condition associated with it will not occur however much stress and emotion are flying around. The trouble is that while most neuro-psychiatrists readily accept that manifestations of brain dysfunction can be modified by personality, stress, emotion and so forth, the psychodynamic inheritors of the Freudian mantle sometimes behave as if the brain, despite its marvellous complexity, is the only organ of the body that never goes on the blink. Under the microscope, one bit of liver, heart muscle or lung, looks very like any other bit. The brain is much more specialised and the various parts have some splendid Graeco-Roman names (hippocampus, mammillary bodies, locus coeruleus) which are almost a match for Freudian buzzwords like Oedipus and the vagina dentata.

Despite the conclusion of most studies that sleepwalking has 'no demonstrated associations with...psychopathology', and that it chiefly reflects cerebral rather than psychological abnormalities, sleepwalking, like dreaming, provides a fair amount of obvious grist for the Freudian mill. Dreams, for Freud, were famously "the royal road to the unconscious" but as we have seen, somnambulism and dreaming are typically separate and even incompatible activities, characterised by different and fairly specific neurophysiological processes. Although he started his professional life as a neurologist, Freud did not know this, which explains and perhaps excuses his use of 'somnambulism' to include the perambulations of a patient in a hypnotic trance - a horse of a very different colour.

To paraphrase Samuel Butler, 'God cannot rewrite history but psychoanalysts can. Perhaps that is why He tolerates their existence'. Despite Freud's well known caveat that there are times when 'a cigar is only a cigar', Freudians remain enthusiastically wedded to the idea that the complex is preferable to the simple, that sex is a universal rather than a common factor in human behaviour and relationships and to imaginative speculation rather than prosaic evidence - in short, to a baroque as opposed to a Spartan view of mental processes. Baroque is more fun, of course, with lots of interesting decorative details to divert attention from more important considerations, such as whether the foundations are sound but in the past quarter century, a seismic change has affected the status of these foundations. The change is that most people in psychiatry - who are at least as concerned as physicians or surgeons to concentrate on evidence-based treatments - do not now regard psychoanalytic theories as having much explanatory or therapeutic application.

Forty years ago, the psychiatric journals - particularly American ones - were full of learned papers incorporating psychoanalytic concepts and taking them for granted. Around the mid-1970s, these papers gradually disappeared off the face of the academic planet, surviving only in a few specialist psychoanalytical journals. The historian Edward Short has documented the way that the psychiatric establishment in America was very strongly influenced by psychoanalysis and its practitioners before, during and after WW2 and to a much greater extent than any other country. Indeed, it could be argued that as with some of the nastier Latin-American regimes, psychoanalysis could not have survived without US support. Now that that support has largely vanished, psychoanalysis has retreated to the more academically and heuristically undemanding habitats provided by journalism, the counselling industry and the arts - a Pollyanna archipelago where no beautiful hypothesis is ever slain by an ugly and inconvenient fact.

Can psychoanalysis help in cases like Amina's? It's true that she's an orphan and adopted, and both Freudians and neuropsychiatrists might reasonably make something of that. (Perhaps she was dropped on her head as a baby.) On the other hand, she is not obviously unhappy except on account of Elvino's jealousy and she seems popular with her peers for all the right reasons. Losing two parents might have seemed like carelessness to Lady Bracknell but wouldn't have been so unusual in a pre-Bazalgette age when lethal epidemics were still common (and when successful adoptions could occur without the involvement of platoons of social workers). Whatever the underlying causes, the Aminas of this world clearly need help if they're not going to end their days expiring dramatically (perhaps Traviata-style in some rustic Swiss 1830s version of a hospital soap-opera). So what can we actually do to help persistent sleep-walkers who repeatedly somnambulate into dangerous situations? (Amina's compatriot apparently somnambulated again in the orthopaedic ward just as soon as he was unencumbered by weights and pulleys.) Do we go for talking-and-listening or do we reach for the Prozac aerosol?

In many psychotherapy programmes, people are talked through their problems, with or without interpretations, until at some stage they say something like: 'Well, I guess I never really saw it that way before'. The cognitive behaviour therapist treating a patient with spider-phobia will only be successful when the patient comes in practice to see spiders as less frightening and not worth responding to as if they represented a mortal threat. For the patient of a cognitive therapist, progressively exposed to pictures of spiders, then to small dead spiders and finally a real live frisky one, this is likely to be seen on both sides as a matter of familiarity breeding contempt. The patient in psychoanalysis may be more likely to say: 'I have stopped being frightened of spiders because I have come to agree with your view that I am frightened of them because their long legs activate the repressed memory of a time when I saw my parents having sex'. (Which was more or less how Freud interpreted a child's fear of horses in the famous case of 'Little Hans'.) So long as both patients can cope with spiders, does it matter which therapy is used or whether the 'explanation' underpinning the treatment is correct? Isn't relief without explanation better than explanation without relief? (And let's not forget that many conditions improve, sometimes dramatically, once people recognise that they have a problem and go and see someone about it.)

If somnambulism, in a particular case, seems related to stress or distress, a bit of listening, probing, speculating and advising would seem a sensible beginning, especially if their bedroom isn't on the sixth floor. But what do you do if there is no obvious precipitant, or if there is an obvious source of tension or unhappiness but it cannot easily be resolved or come to terms with and they keep on walking despite understanding perfectly why it's happening? The first choice wouldn't actually be Prozac, which can sometimes make sleep problems worse, but that classic mother's little comforter of the 1960s. The texts say that sleeping-tablets of the benzodiazepine group, of which Valium (diazepam) is the best-known member, reliably suppress stage 3-4 sleep, thus removing the particular pattern of brain activity that is necessary for sleep-walking. Like drugs for bedwetting, it shouldn't usually have to be taken forever because somnambulism rarely outlasts adolescence. How fortunate for opera-lovers that Valium, though originally synthesised by a Swiss firm, wasn't around in the 1830s to complicate a touching little story of love and jealousy.

Written by my friend and colleague, London psychiatrist Colin Brewer. Posted with his permission.