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08 September, 2013

Sumptuous Traviata sizzles at season’s end.

La Traviata Thursday 22nd August 2013 Sydney Opera House. 

Dear Colleagues,

My last opera for the Sydney winter season was La Traviata.  (I am NOT going to South Pacific although I am sure it will be excellent).  A knowledgeable friend had contended that Emma Matthews had a small voice so I made a point of sitting towards the rear of the theatre (back seats of Loge Y - and they only cost $44 each).  Ms Matthews’ voice filled the hall perfectly well and her delivery was faultless.  She injected sex appeal [sic], impishness, vulnerability and despondency as required by the drama.  She also used a phenomenally difficult coloratura at the end of Act I and lasted the distance to a tragic demise in Act III. 

By contrast the tenor playing Alfredo was barely adequate.  Martin Buckingham was promoted from the opera chorus and despite a valiant effort was clearly in difficulties from the start.  I recall Vinson Cole calling this part a 'killer role'.  If only Mr Buckingham had not attempted two unwritten high notes he may have got away with it.  He cracked on an optional high note in the off-stage section at the end of Act I.  Then in Act II he then sang a fine 'De miei bollenti spiriti' but attempted the optional high note at the end of the cabaletta which was strangulated, curtailed and ugly. 

I was a little surprised that the company chose Shane Lowrencev as Baron Duphol who plays the close guardian of Violetta in the party scene.  Having been cast in major principal roles he was now reduced to this comprimario part, which he sings perfectly well.  However, it was hard to overlook the singular difference in height between the diminutive soprano and Mr Lowrencev who must measure near 2 metres.

Along with the soprano and marvellous production by Elijah Moshinsky, another strength of the evening was the velvet baritone singing of Jose Carbo as father Germont.  He looked and sounded every bit the part and it is surprising that we don’t hear him more often in our opera seasons.  He should just be signed up on a serious retainer but the company just does not do that any more. 

Patrick Lange conducted a professional orchestra with traditional tempi and not drawing attention unnecessarily to either himself or his band.  The opera chorus also sang and acted well in the cramped conditions of the Sydney opera stage. 

Another good night at the opera.  We are privileged indeed to have an opera company at all in far off Australia although it is depressing to think that the seasons are now so depleted from the ‘golden years’ of the 1980s, 90s and so on.  And not much changes with the new season announcement, sad to say.  To learn that Carmen is featured would make many subscribers groan so often have we seen this opera.  Some of the main drawcards are not actually opera performances at all.  There is a Sunday evening concert by German tenor Jonas Kaufman (top seats are $350).  Yet we will be denied Mr Kaufman’s great attribute, being his intense stage presence and acting in an opera.  Even at his absolute prime Luciano Pavarotti sang three performances (of La Boheme) with our opera company.  Likewise dozens of the world’s top singers.  Other "side-shows" for 2014 include ‘Opera on the Beach’, ‘Opera on the Harbour’ and ‘The King and I’.  So the company moves further and further away from the Mission Statement which was on their web site when Mr Terracini became the head honcho. 

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..


04 September, 2013

Don Pasquale comes to Sydney Opera House.

Don Pasquale. Sydney Opera House Wed 7th August 2013. 

Don Pasquale - Conal Coad
Dr Malatesta - Samuel Dundas
Ernesto - Ji-Min Park
Norina - Rachelle Durkin
c. Guillaume Tourniaire p. Roger Hodgman

Dear Colleagues,

This Don Pasquale opened with a sepia-like scrim projection with a vintage movie promotion.  While perhaps of some meaning to those ‘in the know’, this seemed of little bearing to the chocolate-box production we were about to enjoy. 

The stage was a charming house and street exterior which rotated to an equally charming if dated domestic interior.  This was transformed to a super-contemporary setting after the intervention of the ‘modern’ young wife in the second act, part of the plot to drive the rich old philanderer mad and make him renounce his decision to re-marry, thereby disinheriting his nephew Ernesto. 

The work’s most famous tune, first played on the ‘cello in the overture, should be a gift to the tenor.  Com’e gentil was a delight with Korean tenor Ji-Min Park putting sensitivity before panache in the aria, producing a non-falsetto and legato ending.  He was the real star of the night in my book. 

Likewise, Norina’s aria is a spin for the coloratura … and Ms Durkin is up to it.  Her voice is capable and well projected, yet it lacks the innate beauty of the finest of the genre.  She was exemplary as one of the ugly sisters in the Met’s Cenerentola in New York. 

Like the changed domestic décor in Act II, so we also see the transformation of Mr Coad from house clothing to formal attire for the wedding then the inevitable hangover in which he is bestraggled again.  Mr Coad has an impressive voice and comic presence - with a facility to fit fiddly syllables into his patter, no more than in the duet with baritone Cheti, cheti mantinente. 

Mr Dundas as Dr Malatesta (Italian for ‘headache’) sings and acts with style and flair as the scheming, unethical doctor on house call.  Yet his command of proceedings is not as unanswerable as it might be. 

Don Pasquale contains many other memorable melodies, taxing and beautiful arias, choruses and a brilliant overture, to boot.  We have waited far too long for this classic comedy of the Bel Canto genre.  Yet we have the Elixir of Love next season, a reflection of the narrow repertoire the company now follows. 

Despite my misgivings about the company’s longevity this was altogether a most enjoyable night at the opera - head spinning with tunes and good spirits at the end of the night and, unlike the other season offerings, nary a body on stage! 

The opera company has now proven that it can put on consistently good quality opera having done Forza del Destino, Tosca, La Traviata and Don Pasquale in the first months of the winter season.  But at the risk of repeating myself, once upon a time a winter season had much more than this.  In September the opera company becomes a light musical theatre company for two months during which mostly opera was traditionally performed.  This was made necessary due to an exodus of subscribers responding to years of poor quality opera and in an effort to keep the company afloat financially.  They did the wonderful musical South Pacific two years running in over 100 performances, demonstrating my point about a true grand opera company which served the public and opera communities for so long. 

Some of my readers have asked about Carmen on the pontoon on Sydney Harbour.  Again, despite misgivings, I attended this event for the second year running and had a simply marvellous time taking in the crowds, evening air, stars, city views and lastly, the music, vocals and drama.  It is more like a fun fair than the opera house.  I did not stay for the whole opera so will not give a critique of the performance, which seemed to be of a high quality for what I saw and heard.  Furthermore, I did not pay the big bucks for the extremely expensive centre seats.  Like the old dry cleaning maxim ‘all care but no responsibility’. 

Handa Opera on the Harbour has now had two years of favourable weather (only one night rescheduled if my information is correct).  Furthermore, the temperature and wind levels were favourable as if some genie were looking after the event.  It is only a matter of time before there is a season disaster due to bad weather to which Sydney can be prone.  While it was a lovely distraction, in the face of rain, high winds or cold, one may well question why not use the charming little opera house nearby.  And why are we hearing amplified opera singers whose arduous lifetime training is to sing without microphones?  There was certainly no amplification when opera started in the Arena di Verona in 1913. 

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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30 August, 2013

Concert at St Jude’s Church, Bowral Sunday 25th August 2013

Carnegie Hall and Covent Garden come to springtime Bowral.

Yvonne Kenny, soprano
Simon Tedeschi, pianoforte

Ms Kenny has been singing at the highest levels in the worlds opera houses for decades.  She has now wisely moved her repertoire to lieder and light song, both of which she is still eminently capable.  Yet there was no hint that she was taking it easy as she pushed herself to the vocal limits, filling the hall with glorious vocalism.  Furthermore, she sang nothing that was not in the voice.  From serious high notes to an almost baritonal chest register, she put meaning, energy and beauty into every phrase.  Her breath control was superior while her delicate pianissimi studied, effective and accurate. 

Mr Tedeschi has an incomparable keyboard facility as well as being a sympathetic accompanist.  Ms Kenny said he was the Rolls Royce of accompanists.  One might be amused by his youthful, casual and almost goofy stage presence, ill fitting tuxedo and all.  But nobody laughed when he started playing.  One of Mr Tedeschis strengths was his terminal soft note, often taken after a long but tasteful pause.  It is easier to play the piano loudly than otherwise. 

Following an initial bracket of Schubert lieder by Ms Kenny, expertly sung, we heard Mr Tedeschi in Schuberts Impromptu Op. 90 No. 4 and Debussy En Bateau.  The latter were both taxing show-pieces for the keyboard, brilliantly executed. 

Before interval there were songs of Faure, Debussy and three by Hahn.  British folk songs started the second half, followed by three Gershwin preludes and In Dahomey (Cakewalk Smasher) piano variations by Percy Grainger (1909).  The latter has a dramatic keyboard ruckus in which Mr Tedeschi might have damaged both his own fingers and the Bechstein grand piano but for his dexterity (I was later informed that the piano was a Asian model ‘re-branded’ as a Bechstein). 

Some lovely modern songs ended the jam-packed concert (Gershwin, Kern and Ivor Novello).  One encore was (I think Irish): Sing it yourself!

I spoke to both the artists briefly afterwards they were generous in mingling briefly with the crowds spilling out of the over-full church. 

I hope these reflections are of interest to readers more about Don Pasquale and La Traviata in due course on my blog.  Also Carmen on the harbour was an unexpected pleasure.  The Sydney opera season ends on Saturday 31st August and rush tickets have been aplenty, even with this short season. 
Written by Andrew Byrne ..

09 July, 2013

Glorious Sydney Tosca - roll up, roll up!

Tosca - Puccini - Sydney Opera House Saturday 6th July 2013

Dear Colleagues,

Opera is about voice, voice and more voice.  Clothed in marvellous costumes and a life-like Roman Catholic setting around 1940 this Tosca would satisfy the most demanding opera goer and equally, win over any budding novice, largely on the voices which were magnificent. 

As Cavaradossi, tenor Mr Yonghoon Lee was first class.  Slender, tall and Bohemian looking, his splendid performance drew a (partial) standing ovation at the end.  His Metropolitan and La Scala appearances were highly praised, with good reason it seems. 

Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou performed the title role with gusto, flair and beauty.  Her voice is enormous, accurate and well modulated.  There is not the length of breath to emulate Caballé in her unique Vissi darte, yet the high tensile vocalism was extremely effective and comparisons are odorous, as the Bard wrote.  We last heard her in La Rondine with the SSO in 2008 when she was equally impressive. 

Veteran baritone John Wegner seemed slightly under-power as the evil Nazi sympathiser Scarpia and one wondered if he was harbouring a winter virus.  He was menacing and effective nonetheless. 

Supporting artists David Parkin (Angelotti) and John Bolton-Wood (Sacristan) were also excellent. 

Direction by John Bell was sympathetic and effective, making this opening one of the most enjoyable opera performances I have heard in Australia for some time.  Bell set the piece in the high Nazi period but Swastikas were only used on three occasions, including a ripped red banner used to cover Scarpias body.  I learned later that two incensed Jewish patrons were responsible for booing at the end.  There were a couple of anomalies and some brilliant innovations, including Toscas death.  Such is opera, raising emotions of all kinds! 

It was a major risk doing yet another production of Tosca in Sydney, especially doing 19 performances.  So many subscribers have abandoned their long held seats that the company will have enormous trouble clawing back support.  Eventually they will run out of musical comedy or else the Australia Council will realise that its funds are not being spent on opera.  Each year of late the company has simply replaced the shrinking opera audience with musical comedy to make ends meet.  This year has yet another very long season of South Pacific (Sept 8 to Nov 2 in Sydney and up to 12th January 2014 in Adelaide and Perth).  Thats a third of the year spent on non-core opera activities for the national opera company!  The once almost unobtainable Gala opening night seats are now freely available and some people I ran into did not even know that it was opening night.  

There are only nine performances with the opening cast of lovers - then Cheryl Barker sings with Diego Torre, both also highly competent artists. 

But they are also being overworked.  On numerous occasions singers are to perform with only one days break, contrary to a long tradition in serious opera houses of using two lay days between performances.  During one nine day period they are to sing five performances, a super-human feat some might think.  Grand opera is akin to marathon running where pacing oneself in a performance, a season or a career are all crucial decisions. 

So if you can get along to the Sydney Opera House I highly recommend this cast and this new magnificent production of Tosca. 

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

06 July, 2013

La Forza del Destino - Sydney Opera House: season opening, Sat 29th June

If you can get to see this opera this short season you will not be disappointed.  There are four excellent imported artists with three or four top-rate Australians in one of Verdis most melodic and melodramatic works.  It has one of the most inventive overtures every written, vying for equal place with Nozze di Figaro and Semiramide.  The production, sets & costumes are quite brilliant with an almost credible take on an unbelievable story.  Superbly conducted by Andrea Licata and with a top-rate orchestra and chorus you have a classy opera on a winters night in a classic building. 

Svetla Vassileva (Leonora) was top class with several 'tricks' including pianissimo broadening to forte with very long breath control.  Still not a unique voice but very pleasant quality and pin-point control and accuracy.  Fine looking woman with good acting abilities. 

Riccardo Massi (Don Alvaro) like so many tenors somewhat awkward.   Yet a gifted top, despite some ugliness in the delivery at times.  The black eyes and a tall, lumbering frame made him look like someone from the Adams Family.  Hard to imagine him trying to look handsome as the eloping party in the opening scene in which he goofed with the gun and accidentally killed his potential father-in-law (this is opera, ladies and gentlemen). 

As Don Carlo di Calatrava was veteran baritone Jonathan Summers in excellent form despite turning 67 this year he looks and sounds far younger that's another sign of a 'pro' in any field. 

Giacomo Prestia (Padre Guardiano) marvellous basso with the rest.  Hard to imagine anyone doing this role any better. 

Same could be said of Ms Rinat Shaham (Preziosilla) who pulled out all the stops as obviously demanded by the director, and some vocal risks to boot.  She has an effective trill and a high extension which was used well on all but one occasion with a slightly clipped ?B flat but no shame in that for a mezzo.  It is still surprising that an Australian could not have been available of the same or even better calibre. 

Warwick Fyfe was simply excellent dramatically and vocally with his booming almost blustering voice as the impatient, intolerant and irreverent monk Melitone. 

Despite enjoying this opera at the time, I am now feeling that we were lacking a star to raise the rest to an even higher level.  The singers were all very good but somehow there was a focus on accuracy, high notes, trills, etc but lacking a particular unique characteristic or rare beauty of voice, things which cannot be learned.  Someone with the accuracy, technique, projection ability PLUS distinct vocal beauty is automatically a star in my book we have not heard a real star in Sydney for a number of years now (is there an exception to this I wonder?).  Indeed such singers are quickly snapped up by the great opera houses and become the talk of the field, recordings, media darlings and sometimes mythology - Melba farewells and muck-singing for example. 

When people look back at the decades of the 20th century there were half a dozen in each who fitted the bill so such 'stardom' is a pretty rare commodity.  In the 1980s and 90s the Australian audience enjoyed Sutherland routinely but also heard Pavarotti, Leona Mitchell, Johan Botha, Lisa Connell, Sumi Jo, Regina Schorg, Donald McIntyre, Vinson Cole, Marilyn Zschau, Eva Marton, Carol Vaness, Peter Glossop, Sherril Milnes, Huguette Tourangeau, Marilyn Horne (concert only), Kiri Te Kanawa, Fiorenza Cossotto, Pilar Loringar, Regina Resnik and Angelo Marenzi (a very incomplete list). 

Like Tiger Woods with golf and all the other names one associates with the top people in tennis, athletics, football, etc.  Star quality is easy to recognise when it comes along, even by people who don't know much about ballet/sport/music, etc.  As a boy I once saw Richie Benaud bat from the hill at the SCG and it was entrancing and Im no cricket fan.  Part of the enjoyment is observing the reactions of other members of the audience, and likewise, bad vibes from neighbours can spoil what might otherwise be a perfectly creditable performance.  Most of all, stars pull in a new audience and Pavarotti was probably the most important star of our era to popularise opera as Callas, Caruso, Melba and other immortals did in the past. 

Am I expecting too much?  Of course I am.  I want a bigger hall with better acoustics.  I want bigger orchestra plus STAR quality opera singers.  And a free car park.

In the intermissions the administrative staff members all looked very pleased with themselves.  Yet it is their company which has now replaced over two months of traditional opera with musical comedy while also failing to produce many if any true international stars in their seasons until very recently.  The subscriber base has been contracting due to so much repetition of poor quality opera so now the company do not need to schedule so many opera performances ... it is a repeating cycle and one wonders where it will end. 

Looking forward to a new Tosca next week.  But I looked forward to the last two productions, too.  \
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. 

13 April, 2013

Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Don Carlo by Verdi at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Conductor - Lorin Maazel
Title - Ramon Vargas
King Philip II - Ferruccio Furlanetto
Eboli - Anna Smirnova
Elizabeth - Barbara Frittoli
Roderigo, Marquis of Posa - Dmitry Hvorostovsky

This opera has always been one of my favourites yet until this outing I really had little idea what went on between all those beautiful and haunting arias, duets, choruses, etc.  I even once thought that the ‘Don’ of ‘Don Fatale’ was one of the menfolk (don is actually the Italian word for ‘gift’, Eboli’s beauty - and her curse).  Like all his later operas, every nuance of the story is used dramatically and vocally by the Verdi genius.  This is his longest and most complex opera if not his most ‘extravagant’ (which is probably Aida).  I attended the last two performances of the run, considering my own limited attention span, worsened by jet-lag the first time.  Even without ballet, the 5 acts finished near midnight. 

The opera raises Q&A about the Holy Roman Empire, an English connection, German, French, Italian and Spanish speakers and their rulers.  We also learn about the relation between church and state circa 1560.  An auto-da-fe scene is the centre of the work, all in a day’s activities in the Spanish Inquisition it would seem. 

So how was the singing?  Before all else opera is about big, beautiful voices in wonderful musical drama … and we had a dose-and-a-half of that in this production at the Met.  Most thrilling and novel for me was the mezzo-soprano Ms Smirnova who has a fine, penetrating velvet voice which fills the auditorium to the distant rafters.  Her act II ‘teaser’ aria and chorus was superb as was most of ‘O don fatale’.  She just seemed to run out of breath a second too soon on the final note, despite a magnificent rendition of this soul-searching and vocally taxing aria. 

Ramon Vargas sang creditably, possessing an even vocal facility into the high range needed for this long role.  This may have contributed to the downfall of Rolando Villazon and his lovely voice, pushed perhaps beyond its natural limits in this and other ‘Olympian’ vocal feats.  Strangely, Carlo has no more than one discrete aria early in the opera (Io lo vidi) … yet lots more concerted singing.  Some of Mr Vargas’ ‘r’ sounds were imperfect yet they did not affect the vocal line. 

While soprano Barbara Frittoli is also a fine singer, few of today’s singers have ‘everything’.  As Elizabetta she produces much elegant mid range vocalising, yet, despite having the facility to sing loud high notes, at times these seem to come out of nowhere and they do not always meld with the preceding vocal line, none of this made easier by Verdi’s taxing score.  There is also a beat in some of her open exposed notes. 

As the Spanish king Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sang and acted superbly.  His nine minute aria which opens Act IV received a well deserved rapturous ovation from a packed Saturday night Manhattan opera audience.  ‘Ella giamai m’amo’ is the aria which episomises the work while Don Carlo’s early exclamation ‘Io lo perduto’ equally underscores the hopelessness of the entire plot which has to end badly as father has married the son’s betrothed. 

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang and acted deliciously.  He is one of today’s few super stars who can tick all of the boxes [I ignore his terrible recording of Neapolitan songs!].  Initially I thought he sounded slightly under-powered but by his last scene, finishing in the famous ‘double aria’ culminating in his death, the Russian rose to phenomenal artistic and vocal heights.  This may reflect advice from Maria Callas who said that the audience only ever remembers the last act.  His breath control is phenomenal and enables him to sing entire phrases seamlessly and with unhurried elegance. Even the famous ‘duet’ with Vargas, ‘Dio, che ad alma infondere’ is actually part of a complex chorus cloister scene.  And its melody and sentiment of brotherly love returns more than once in the drama. 

The supporting roles were superbly sung: Eric Halfvarson as Grand Inquisitor; ‘celestial voice’ of Jennifer Check (from the rafters); Flemish deputies; the friar and voice of Carlos V. 

As is traditional there was a major ovation for the conductor Lorin Maazel at the start of the third part.  However, there was also some noisy booing, ‘tisk-tisk’ and banter in opposition as some clearly did not like his tempi.  He certainly chose some atypical speeds from recordings and other performances I have heard.  But that is part of being one of the world’s best - trying new contrasts, etc.  At one point just before his death, Roderigo continued singing an optional long note and timing went awry - something which is usual blamed on the conductor.  Mr Maazel entered the pit from the left, unique in my Met experience where conductors normally enter from the ‘prompt’ (right) side. 

The production is a joint venture with London and Oslo, first seen in 2008.  Nicholas Hytner’s production has a consistent tension and is true to the libretto details, even to the burned down candles at dawn in the king’s chamber.  Some of the religious scenes in Don Carlo reminded me of the Papal voting process which was going on at that very time.  There were rectangular stage shadows in monochrome, snowy exteriors, back-lit trees, austere walls with small palace windows emitting various colours and a magnificent gilded cathedral façade, and miniature font/confessional in the King’s chambers … these can all be seen and heard on Met broadcasts and telecasts.  A marvellous artistic endeavour in every respect. 

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

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La Traviata at the Met. Domingo tenor, conductor and now baritone. Violetta next?

La Traviata - Tuesday 26th April 2013. Metropolitan Opera, New York City.

Violetta - Diana Damrau
Alfredo - Saimir Pirgu
Papa Germont - Placido Domingo
Conductor - Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Production - Willy Decker (the “clock” Traviata).

Dear Colleagues,

This was a highly memorable performance in every respect. The production is novel and quite the opposite of the traditional. The formal interiors of Acts 1 and 3 are replaced by a stark stage containing nothing but a full-width semi-circular rear bench at the right side of which sits an enormous clock face with real hands and a variable pace ticking the minutes down. For the initial duet a large rectangular two-seater sofa appears, at one stage held aloft by muscular chorus members who are all wearing tuxedoes, even the women.

Five or six such sofas are used in Act 2, despite one being sufficient for two lovers. The use of floral fabric with matching projections on the ceiling … with the bright colours fading to black-and-white … brilliant concept and execution as Violetta’s hopes for happiness fade.

The scene at Flora’s house is also bare-bones with the clock recycled as a gaming table, and quite effectively, as Alfredo throws money at a humiliated Violetta and an admonishing Papa Germont sings from the mezzanine above, a deep, parabolic back-drop above the ubiquitous bench. The chorus reversed out in a unique slow-motion manoeuvre allowing act 3 to commence without a break. They returned briefly for the carnival bars which are normally heard from the street outside (again turning the usual production on its head while still being largely consistent with the libretto).

After the (single) break following the first act I found myself sitting with Placido Domingo junior, in the front stalls to support his father. “Aren’t you Maestro’s son, Mr Domingo?” He confessed and bubbled about his father’s continued international success, as one would. He had only nice things to say about Australia. This is just a New York story, something which if it happened anywhere else would be fantasy but here it can and does happen all the time because of the ‘gravity’ of the place. [I also found that Harry Belafonte was at the next table at a midtown restaurant the following week!]

Ms Damrau was better matched both vocally and dramatically than Natalie Dessay last year. It is neither fair nor is it necessary to compare Domingo with Dmitry Hvorostovsky, the consummate baritone of the age. Both are magnificent in their own individual ways. When Dmitry has done a few tenor roles we might be able to make a fair comparison.

The young Albanian tenor Samir Pirgu looked and sounded excellent, despite omitting the optional high C in Act 2 and cracking briefly in the final scene (Parigi, o cara). He is the best looking tenor I have seen in a long time, so many others being gawky tall or short and fat, one of the truths of opera. But he was not chosen for his looks alone, possessing a pleasing, smooth and accurate line but with just a hint of singing above the note at times.

Another ‘truth’ of opera is that people sound different on the radio and on recordings. In the Saturday broadcast later that week Mr Pirgu sounded less smooth, almost to vocal roughness with an odd timbre to the voice. Nerves play some part perhaps yet as a season progresses the ‘chemistry’ between singers usually improves. Whatever, the adrenalin was flowing and in this performance he chose to hit the high note ending ‘O mio rimoso’ cabaletta. It was not all that long, but quite respectable and had the crowds responding enthusiastically. I do hope he does not burn himself out like Mr Villazon did (I note that he is slated for yet another return in a few months and one can only wish him well). In the radio broadcast there were no swallowed or gargled notes from the tenor in the sections I heard (although there was an audible cough before his high C).

For the Saturday broadcast performance Mr Gelb came to the stage at the start of Act 2 to announce that Mr Domingo was suffering from ‘allergies’ but would continue to sing ‘for the public’. He sounded to be in reasonable voice yet early in Act 2 he appeared to be clipping some notes yet nothing serious went awry. From his big aria Di Provenza he settled into his role more comfortably. I am pleased I was not sitting next to Sig Domingo junior for THAT performance.

The conductor Mr Yannick Nezet-Seguin continues a long tradition of Canadians at the Met. Two of their general managers and some of the most important singers of each generation have come from north of the border. And the new Ring’s genius is Robert LePage, also Canadian.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

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Late news: Despite seeing the first Met Ring opera yesterday (Rheingold) I still have the strains of Caesar going around my brain. Is there a cure for all those repeats? A friend wrote to say the cure was to sing the national anthem and that it always works for him!

12 April, 2013

"Veni, vidi, vici". Dramatic Julius Caesar at the Met.

Handel - Julius Caesar. Metropolitan Opera Gala Thurs 4th April 7.30pm - 12.15am

Dear Colleagues,

This opera production by David McVicar is a right romp from the Old Country. I sat next to two Englishmen who said it was essentially the same at its Glyndebourne progenitor. It seemed to arise from a fantasy realm using a recipe of ‘when in doubt, add more’ … and they did. There were acrobatics, aeronautics, on-stage musicians, historic ships, maps and even zeppelins aloft. Conductor Harry Bicket entered the pit from the left - is this becoming a habit started by Lorin Maazel? He certainly knew what he was doing with Handel’s melodies and most important, his pregnant pauses therein.

Set as a stage within a stage in fact there were four discrete proscenium arches, each with its own side-pull curtain, the front and main one being pale cream then emerald, papal purple and ochre. Behind were four huge silvery-grey horizontal rollers which mimicked the ocean and which ground on for the entire performance apart from a couple of palace scenes when other flats obscured their rolling motion.

It must be said that Giulio Cesare in Egitto, to give it its full title, is operatic archaeology - reflecting both the stage of the art form and the long hours idle rich Londoners had in 1724. Apart from two choruses and two or three duets the rest of the near 5 hour work is a long string of discrete ‘da capo’ arias. Yet the four or five immortal melodies and much other beautiful music has kept this opera alive despite the many other styles which have developed meantime.

The evening went without a hitch despite the myriad of things which can and do go wrong in opera - Das Rheingold opening two days later had an entire scene scotched by a seized 50 ton ‘machine’.

The brass section of the orchestra appeared to tire toward the end of the long evening, yet the energy on stage continued to the end with a magnificent ‘Piangero’ from Natalie Dessay. She took an unusual but glorious “V’adoro … (pause), pupillae” in act 2 as she emerged from a body bag or ‘wrap’). She was better cast in this role than as Violetta last year.

All the deceased members of the cast, Pompey excepted, were restored to life to sing the big final chorus with champagne served by the Bollywood dancers and their assistants.

David Daniels is still one of the few counter-tenors whose voice I can warm to … and we had two others in this casting. The on-stage violin duel with Caesar is a classic and David Chan as concertmaster is a showman as well as a musician. Amongst a fine cast for my taste the stars were Alison Coote as Sesto and Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Sesto’s mother (and the wife of Pompey whose severed head is shockingly presented to Caesar in the first minutes of the action). Coote and Bardon each had all it takes to do Handel justice - and they also had two of the charming duets.

Guido Loconsolo has a rich baritone voice and as Achillas did some very elegant singing with convincing drama. We also heard alto Rachid Ben Abdeslam sing and dance a hilarious “Chi perde un momento” (‘Don’t waste a moment’). He must be one of a very few serious singers from North Africa (Morocco). Christophe Dumaux made himself a very unlovable and effete Ptolemy XIII who was initially belittled by his sister, Cleopatra VII, then to go from gaff to gaff in his unprepossessing descent to disaster.

Somehow I come down on the side of traditional voices, especially mezzo-sopranos and baritones as being the backbone of any opera. We will never know what a castrato really sounded like (despite some imperfect recordings of the last Vatican victim) thus we cannot glean the true voice balance that Handel expected. We can be sure that some of these emasculated men had phenomenal voices, for power and beauty, as many adjectives were used by contemporary critics. Likewise, the actual sound of Nellie Melba and others of her era may never be known for sure, especially when most of the imperfect ‘golden age’ recordings were made after their prime. It is a shame that Joan Sutherland did not make some 78rpm recordings using historical equipment for that reason. Or has this been tried?

The gala Met audience for the Handel was appreciative although a small number did not last the distance. And it was not quite a full house. I had seen the dress rehearsal two days before thanks to a generous Met donor … yet at no point on opening night did I consider it a chore, nor did I nod off.

This action-packed production has so many elements of fantasy, gore, sex, homo-erotica and simple beauty that it would be worth a visit if you were deaf. There were images of cowboys, gangsters, rifle shooters, archers and even machine-gunning. Ships were from ancient felucca to modern naval, ocean liners and even a series resembling the Mayflower era. An enlarged period map of Alexandria was used as one of the backdrops, enumerating depths in fathoms, reefs, rocks, shallows, famous lighthouse, library and catacombs. The cinema HD broadcast should be a sell-out.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

More elsewhere on the Met Traviata, Otello, Don Carlo, Faust and Das Rheingold in due course. On my return to Sydney Carmen on the Harbour was a splendid spectacle on a perfect but cool autumn evening on Thursday 11th April. With two prominent casts and other nights with less than ideal weather, it is not possible to pass judgment on this risky venture by a troubled national ‘opera’ company. I was sorry to miss Milijana Nikolic and Adam Diegel, but happy to hear Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham in the title role. Yet amplified opera ain’t opera in my book – but it is a marvellous side-show, when it works.

Single Caesar clip:

Long Caesar clip from UK:

Opera blog:

03 March, 2013

Bumptious, fun Falstaff in Sydney

Falstaff - Verdi. Sydney Opera House Friday 15th Feb 2013

Warwick Fyfe - Falstaff
Mrs Ford - Amelia Farrugia
Ford - Andrew Jones
Fenton - John Longmuir
Nanetta - Lorina Gore
Ms Quickly - Domenica Matthews
Meg - Jacqueline Dark
MacFarlane/Breen/Arthur comic relief.

Conductor: Antony Walker

Dear Colleagues,

This was a marvellous outing of Verdis final work, a boisterous, bumptious traditional Tudor production with good voices and excellent comic acting.  The chorus and orchestra were in good form and obviously well rehearsed. 

However the same cannot be said for the electrical trades as the subtitles and other front of house circuits failed in Act II.  I have often wondered if an orchestra could play in the dark and now I know that at least for a minute or so they can, quite a feat in my book.  One member brandished a little torch while the conductors lectern remained aglow, giving close strings an advantage for once.  After about 90 seconds (at a guess) the pit was happily re-illuminated yet subtitles took what seemed like another ten minutes to be restored.  This left the ignorant audience, including myself, guessing at the rather complex section in which Ford (alias Sig. Fontana) is explaining to Falstaff his marital difficulties (which nowadays would probably be resolved using Viagara or steroids). 

The Shakespeare shone through despite double translations to Italian and back to English.  One of my favourites, the 'sherry' monologue is beautifully presented here in a two line version rather than twenty: both brain and brawn are useless reserves without the addition of alcohol to set them moving (paraphrasing). 

Mr Fyfe has an enormous voice, although he is not a real bass baritone.  Yet his efforts in this role paid off well for a company which once had Bryn Terfel as lead (and Simone Young in the pit).  In my view, as with Rigoletto a year or so ago, Fyfe might better have been a very fine second cast and for three hundred dollars for top seats, we should have again been treated to a great import in the title role.  That is, should any such international artist agree to sing with this remote and in many ways dilapidated opera company.  But nobody could complain about Fyfes claim to fame and Falstaff on the night.  All of the other principle roles were well sung and acted. 

People may think Im crazy but I often judge a performance on what I imagine Shakespeare, Verdi or my own grandfather would think of it should they return from the dead.  I feel sure that honour and dramatic honesty would be satisfied with this outing by the national opera company.  Indeed, here is an ensemble opera put on using local Australian artists and the result is simply excellent, showing the genius of Verdi, good casting and a company versed in the art.  Falstaff is an acquired taste, like Mefistopheles, Fidelio or Capriccio.  But it is worth the effort in the acquisition. 

Another problem is Sydneys Friday evening traffic which was diabolical.  I ended up alighting from my stationary taxi at 7pm near William and Riley Street and walking the length of Macquarie Street past a jam of cars.  It might help my fitness I suppose. 

Notes written by Andrew Byrne ..

19 January, 2013

Sydney Masked Ball: Vocal delights - clunky, ugly, irrelevant production.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013 7.30pm Ballo in Maschera, Verdi 1858

Gustavus - Diego Torre
Amelia - Tamar Iveri
Ankarstrom - José Carbó

Ulrica - Mariana Pentcheva
Oscar - Taryn Feibig
Conductor - Andrea Molino
This was possibly the worst production of any opera I have seen anywhere. The stage set consisted of several large suspended gantries which served little purpose in the action. Ulricas entrance involved one of the platforms but it did not quite reach the floor so a folding set of airline-type steps were needed to get the fortune teller to her clamouring supporters. There was a digital TV screen at the rear of the stage. This showed images which constantly drew attention away from the stage drama and towards third world poverty, warfare, global warming, flesh, sex and depravity. In the same way, during the introduction music we saw projections of everything from Hiroshima to crashing surf all framed within human flesh, young and nubile. None of this seemed to have anything to do with the story of Ballo which is a masterpiece libretto based on historical figures.

The chorus and most principal singers were dressed in unisex numbered blue suits. They also wore tight plastic head-masks partially obscuring their ears, something of a disadvantage in opera some might think, and especially uncomfortable in summer. For unknown reasons Gustavus wore a mask from the beginning of Act I. The production had elements of The Jetsons and the Munsters set in the Tardis of Doctor Who. There was smoke and gas masks to the fore in the finale ... quite tasteless in my view. Several members of chorus were coughing uncontrollably as Gustavus Rex perished from abdominal blood loss mid-stage with only one last gasping aria to go.

I found it hard to find anything beautiful in the production to match the beauty of Verdis music. Despite this, there were some audience members who loved it ! I suppose you cant please everybody all the time. The singing was first rate with three singers new to me. Mr Torre has a ringing high tenor voice and commanding stage presence. Well matched was his Amelia, Ms Iveri who had shades of Tebaldi in a fine dramatic soprano with elegant pitch-accurate pianissimo. Ms Fiebig had all that it takes to carry off the demanding if contradictory role of Oscar. Showing his usual star qualities was Jose Carbo as Secretary of State, Ankestrom (or Renato as the companys libretto seemed unsure which version of the story they were using). Ms Pentcheva as the fortune teller had an excellent low register but sounded tinny on high notes, reminding us of what a loss Bernadette Cullen is in this part to the opera world.

There was a talk before the opera explaining the production for those who like that sort of thing. I always like to see operas cold. If the production is not self explanatory from the text of the opera, classical period costume and behaviour then no explanation is going to convince me. And here we have a production with bits and pieces, major and minor themes, yet much of it taking focus away from the raw emotions of the operas plot.

The tenor/soprano duet was magnificent and received a tumultuous applause, like a hat trick or a major tennis win and it was all of these, or their operatic equivalent. The chorus was split between loyal subjects and the basso conspirators, all doing justice to the glorious score. The orchestra was also a star on the night under Maestro Molino.

The national Australian opera company seems to have a jinx with this opera. Ballo was subject of some union action some years ago as I recall while the present opening happened on the very same week as the Metropolitan broadcast of a newly updated version from New York, beamed into cinemas around the world with some of the best singers of the era competing for our opera dollar. But there is nothing like being there, as the Met broadcasts always state in their promotion.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

07 January, 2013

New Year wishes for 2013

Andrew Byrne’s greeting: busy with family matters; less time for opera and medical journal summaries; disappointed in ‘big pharma’ tactics; also by inept opera company decisions; occupied with mosque and synagogue events; look forward with gusto to 2013. 

Dear Colleagues,

The year 2012 was one I did not expect to get to, being my eighth whole year after treatment for advanced lymphoma.  This year my partner Allan and I have relocated to the charming Southern Highlands town of Bowral.  We still have a flat in Sydney where I continue to work three days at the Redfern surgery (Wed-Sat).  My father John died in May aged 85 following an operation.  He was a crazy opera fan too and he finally made it to The Met in his 80s and saw three great works and went back-stage to meet some of the stars (and spoke Italian to maestro Marco Armiliato).  As his executor I have been busy dealing with a lot of material and emotional things.  With my four wonderful sibs (one in New York presently) we have still enjoyed another festive season relatively intact.

There have been few notable opera performances in Sydney yet we are probably lucky to still have an opera company at all.  The company lurches from pathetic populism to inept casting and poor marketing.  Their administration personnel have made statements about elitism amongst the audience, quite an astounding (and irrelevant) assertion.  One senior member even publicly likened public support for opera as somehow comparable with the situation in the Middle East and before the French Revolution.  What is he thinking?  And the quality has dropped year by year with a number of significant and laudable exceptions of late (Salome, Lucia for example) for which credit is due.  Much of the company’s output is not actually opera but musical comedy, something for which they have no mandate under their own charter, nor is it consistent with their funding from the Australia Council.  It is the unique talent and training of opera singers to vocalise without the use of amplification.  The company repeats Aida, Boheme, Butterfly and Carmen, wonderful operas, of course, but ones which are so over-exposed in Sydney that subscriber audiences groan to know of their reappearance while there are literally dozens of other very popular operas and hundreds of other master-works to choose from.  We may be lucky to hear better things in 2013. 

Some of you will know that I have been despondent at the widespread acceptance of drug company advertising convincing many doctors to prescribe in a way which is not evidence based but which maximises profits.  It is indeed depressing but these marketing tactics do not just affect the addiction field but are found across the medical spectrum where less effective but far more costly products are pushed against traditional (and cheap, tried and true) medications as long as they remain mega-profitable (usually about 5 years).  

My continuing involvement in comparative religions of the book has almost become a recreation after several years.  The vocalism in mosque and synagogue is indeed worthwhile and is usually cheaper than opera seats (YouTube links on request).  In my quest for knowledge, whenever I think I have cracked some ‘secret Semitic code’ I invariably find that I am up another blind alley and need to start over.  Arabic and Hebrew are quite difficult languages, making Cantonese seem easy in my book (clue: the latter is musical).  

Some of my greatest joys during 2012 were re-reading The Merchant of Venice and listening to Gotterdamerung.  While I have still not encompassed the details of either, I adore delving at random into the beauty the works, marvelling at the genius involved in their geneses.  Apart from their complex character interactions and racial overtones, there is also a court-room drama, concealed identities, double crossing and a murder on stage.  Interestingly, each plot revolves around the default of a sub-prime mortgage of sorts (over Valhalla and Antonio’s merchant ships respectively).  

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous 2013 from Andrew Byrne ..

A sample of our blogs:

A month in New York

Grandfather Harry Gracie’s trip to America 1924