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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