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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 ..

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Grandfather Harry Gracie’s trip to America 1924