The Merry Widow. Sydney Opera House. Thursday 4th August 2011
New season announcement for 2012.
The national company has just opened a new co-production with Leeds’ Opera North. This Merry Widow is not a happy event in my view.
While the original from 1905 lacked an overture, the composer wrote one for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra 35 years later. Like the rather unedifying new translation, the local company chose to ignore history and do their own thing. The now traditional overture was replaced with a few bars of some ukulele/zither emptiness which might well have presaged another heavy night at the theatre. But it was not all doom and gloom as there were moments of magic and windows of dynamic vocalism.
Despite being one of their most popular artists for many years, the company in its wisdom banished tenor David Hobson from opera almost ten years ago (he was last heard in a G&S in 2005). He is now back playing a regal Prince Danilo to the delight of his many fans. Amelia Farrugia had all of the notes and most of the stage persona required for Hanna Glawari’s demanding role. She has a hard act to follow after Joan Sutherland, June Bronhill and Yvonne Kenny (in her prime) down the decades. As Rossignon, Henry Choo sang with style and grace, yet he, like everyone else, was amplified. John Bolton-Wood played a perfect ambassador while other supporting characters were also well cast. The chorus did its usual top job, as did the orchestra.
The company has replaced the large sub-title board above the stage with a smaller panel with orange coloured letters pushed closer together. And much of the dialogue was not projected at all … which made it almost impossible for some in the theatre to know what was going on. The decision to use exaggerated cockney and French accents also made it harder to understand.
The production seemed to be based on a dozen or more purple-backed, painted-on chandeliers which came up and down on vertical flats at appointed times. It also had 8 naked lady mannequins holding ball lights. Although it all worked reasonably well it lacked originality, nor did it give us anything particularly beautiful to admire.
The text was a quite different and high-brow literary translation. It pointedly used none of the original words, phrases or rhymes from the very familiar English version. Some of this seemed to be simply petulant or maybe there were issues of copyright or royalties. Some of the Widow pieces are so popular, most notably ‘Vilja, Oh Vilja’, that it seemed very odd indeed to insert new words. Would they do so with G&S to save money, I wonder?
Subscribers who enjoy grand opera may feel slighted that each time there are another ten performances of La Boheme (30 total) or Merry Widow (20 total) that the company COULD have mounted Simon Boccanegra, Clemenza di Tito, Il Trittico, Don Pasquale, La Gioconda, Yeoman of the Guard or one of dozens of other popular works in their place (using high quality and unamplified Australian and imported ingredients).
The new season for 2012 announced this week involves only a very small number of first or second-rung international stars. Susan Foster should be a good Turandot but she is not even doing half the season. Johannes Fritzsch returns to conduct Cheryl Barker in Salome. Aida might as well be called Amneris considering the roles. Yet we are to hear a competent house singer in this role while true stars both Australian and international are passed over for unknown reasons. In the summer season three popular Mozart operas run simultaneously … and “The Magic Flute” is not the Magic Flute at all, but a one-act cut-down version! But no discounts for diluted opera: good seats are between $215 and $272 even at subscription rates! Youth subscription tickets to Madam Butterfly are still a steep $194. I think this is the third run of Butterfly in four years! After relentless increases in recent years I note that some subscriptions are about 4% cheaper this year and only hope this encourages more to renew.
Poor Teddy Tahu Rhodes sings 34 performances of South Pacific. So yet again, we have a trained opera singer performing musical comedy by an ‘opera’ company which is nothing of the kind any more. It is much simpler when one can do night after night of the same work. I have no problem in principle with South Pacific, Mary Poppins, G&S or Merry Widow - they are all great works. Just that serious opera companies usually leave such works to others. They compete on a very different market than with their core duties of opera. The OA mission statement deals with opera and opera singers and mentions nothing about light opera, operetta or musical comedy (* see below).
In another bizarre twist according to the season brochure Cheryl Barker is billed to ‘sing’ Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt … but she will do so separate from the orchestra in another hall and the audio will be piped into the opera theatre. This, along with amplification of other works and “opera afloat” shows the complete lack of insight on the part of the company. What opera fans want to hear is singing. Pure beautiful, unamplified singing! One hopes that Ms Barker will be suitable for this very demanding role – and that we might actually hear her sing it.
It is humiliating to hear what the company management is quoted as saying about subscribers, singers of less-than-svelte stature, Wagner and ‘alternative’ opera. It is like a teenage fantasy rather than mature management. The Australia Council should review how its public funds are expended by this company.
Sadly this opera company is in its death throes as any accounting student could plainly see. Will the government/s bail it out when the time comes? I doubt it in the current financial climate. The Merry Widow and South Pacific are just desperate attempts to right a listing ship … yet more poor programming for the national ‘opera’ company and probably another step in its slow demise under current management. Why would an opera company try to compete with Mary Poppins? It is a great sadness to see an established, vibrant and innovative opera company attaining irrelevance by years of mismanagement. The board members and other smug decision makers should be called to account, fall on their swords, concede their errors and allow an administrator to try a rescue (like Fidelio!) before all that is left is a post-mortem without an audience.
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
* Mission Statement. Opera Australia.
Web site accessed 22/2/09
To present opera of excellence that excites audiences and develops and sustains the art form in Australia
To this end, we will:
1. Interpret with integrity the indivisible musical and dramatic qualities of operatic works from four centuries including our own time and place;
2. Satisfy and extend the experience of the committed opera audience while actively encouraging and developing new audiences;
3. Operate year-round: mounting major seasons in Sydney and Melbourne,
and reaching a wider community through multimedia, regional tours and collaboration with State companies;
4. Strengthen our ensemble values of co-operative working, cumulative
learning and mutual respect between all areas and members of the Company;
5. Develop financial strength through long-term planning, prudent cost
control and maximising revenues from box-office, sponsors, donors, governments, tourism and other commercial activities;
6. Continue to build the confidence, trust and loyalty of the public,
governments and sponsors through efficient service and honest,
7. Attract, develop, challenge and retain people of the highest calibre
within an organisation that is effectively led, well informed and in which
their contribution is respected and celebrated;
8. Expect artists and staff to continue their professional growth throughout
their careers and to draw, as appropriate, on the accumulated knowledge within and available to the Company;
9. Continue the mutual benefit flowing from collaboration with international artists and companies;
10. Be rigorous in self-examination and open to informed, outside evaluation of both our successes and failures;
Australia's cultural landscape is enriched by a nationally and internationally acknowledged opera company;
Artists and staff collaborate in a unique working environment, which encourages them to give of their best;
Sponsors, governments and supporters receive a highly-valued artistic dividend and benefits of association; and,
The Company secures long-term and mutually profitable relations with key venues and multimedia.
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