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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 ..