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20 August, 2014

McVicar Don Giovanni in Sydney

Excellent new production - finally a fully-fledged Don Giovanni!

Friday 25th July 2014. Don Giovanni at Sydney Opera House.

Conductor - Jonathan Darlington
Director - David McVicar
Set & Costume Designer - Robert Jones
Lighting Designer - David Finn
Choreographer - Andrew George
Fight Coordinator - Scott Witt
Assistant Director - Matthew Barclay

Don Giovanni - Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Leporello - Shane Lowrencev
Donna Anna - Elvira Fatykhova
Don Elvira - Nicole Car
Don Ottavio - John Longmuir
Zerlina - Taryn Fiebig
Masetto - Richard Anderson
Commendatore - Jud Arthur


This was a pleasing performance with a balanced cast of serious opera singers in a rich, dark and complex production. I look forward to seeing it again in better seats as the full depth of the stage was used behind and beneath a huge gangway staircase which initially angled down from the stage ceiling during the overture. Much of the opera’s action took place on or around this broad black stairway.

On the prompt side I could see the wings with outpourings of black nondescript matter reminiscent of coal tailings. Were we in hell already in Act one? There was an ornate ceiling attached to the underside of the enormous stairway.

While opera is notoriously peppered with disasters, three in the one month in Sydney would seem to indicate a lack of due diligence. After the sacked soprano and imbroglio over donors’ amenities that weren’t, this gala lost English titles at the start of Act 2. After ten minutes or so the titles finally reappeared, albeit out of synch. At that moment Mr Tahu Rhodes was half way through his famous De vieni alla finestra and must have wondered why the audience applauded in the middle of the second verse. Furthermore, the section with missing titles was crucial to understanding that the Don and his side-kick rabbit man were swapping clothes as a damsel deception. It reminds us of the days before titles when much of the stage action was murky for many of us.

Mr Tahu Rhodes sang beautifully with his large, smooth and expressive baritone voice. It makes one wonder why he is spending so much time with a microphone in light musicals. Did he do all that training to be amplified in Broadway genre?

Despite generations of reverent adherence to Mozart’s scores, there has been a recent trend to interpolate or embellish as has happened with virtually every other composer (not Wagner?). We heard a hint of such a ‘liberty’ in this otherwise ‘come scritto’ reading (Or sai chi l’onore) sung beautifully by Ms Fatykova. Otherwise everything was by the book to my ear.

As with Mozart’s other operas I sometimes find myself vexed by the relentless philandering sociopathy on stage … yet we hear the most wonderful string of miraculous arias and set pieces that one would not be without. And for the first time in over 20 years the company now performs the entire work as Mozart left us. Like other composers, he tinkered with his works and to my mind it is a travesty to leave out the added pieces. And it must have been so unsatisfying for competent singers to have big arias omitted.

Mr Longmuir has come of age and cuts a fine figure on stage with all the necessaries for the noble but puling Don Ottavio. Nicole Car has an extraordinary and bell-like soprano, almost lifting roof tiles. And she puts her all into the drama.

Mr Lowrencev just seemed wrong for Leporello. Taryn Fiebig cuts a fine Zerlina while Richard Anderson again plays Masetto, frequently the victim of a king-hit (or coward punch as we are now meant to call it). It almost goes without saying that the chorus and orchestra under Maestro Darlington were splendid.

This production is a worthy and faithful outing with an excellent cast - it should not be missed by those who like Mozart operas and who can get to the Sydney Opera House this month.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Post script on opera company surveys: at 7am after each opera performance I have attended I receive a promotional email with link to a survey asking me my views on the performance. I have done one of them and deleted the rest. This is yet another gauche move by a company which, looking at next year’s anaemic season, needs a funeral director in place of its current management. Very sad for a once great opera company which performed up to 18 different operas each year most with international quality casts.


Jonas Kaufmann at The Sydney Opera House

Jonas Kaufmann in concert with Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under baton of Jochen Rieder at the Sydney Opera House 7pm Sunday 17th August 2014 (repeat of same concert from Sunday 10th - plus an extra encore). 

Dear colleagues in opera,

We were treated to a magnificent and memorable evening of opera arias and concert favourites which would be hard to find a rival since the golden age. 

Not since Pavarotti and Sutherland sang in this hall in 1983 have we heard such glorious vocalism.  As well as having an enormous and beautiful voice Mr Kaufmann is also a very serious singer.  He has clearly studied every note and every word of each aria, imparting their lines with depth and meaning.  And his command of forte-piano is consummate, wielding the crescendo-diminuendo like no other singer I have heard.  His pairing with maestro Jochen Rieder was crucial to the evening, one reason being that some slow tempi chosen could easily have got out of control.  Both visiting artists are Germans of the same age … they almost look as if they could be brothers.  And the whole night was about control breath control, pitch, dramatic and legato control in the context of big, dramatic vocal delivery. 

Of all the facets which opera singers have to master Mr Kaufmann ticks nearly all the boxes (I dont recall any trills).  The elements required include good enunciation, on-the-note, rolled r, true trill, inaudible breaths, long legato lines, even portamento, colouring of notes, acting and (finally) good looks which all contribute.  And Mr Kaufmann also possesses that extra special indefinable quality on stage.  Maria Callas had it to spare as all the greats have to some extent.  Kaufmann looks younger than his 44 years and he has a genuine and well humoured appearance on stage.  And he sings what audiences want to hear.  So there you have it, the perfect tenor and nothing like the archetypical short, stocky operatic hero. 

Being a single vocalist doing major arias he needed some recovery time which was ably provided by excellent operatic pieces from the companys Opera and Ballet Orchestra.  It was the last night of their guest lead violinist (who played the Meditation from Thaïs superbly).  It was touching that Mr Kaufmann spoke briefly to wish her well for the future and thank her for leading such a fine orchestra in Sydney.  And he plucked a flower from one of the enormous arrangements, presenting it to her with some gentlemanly style. 

My only slight disappointment was a lack of any lesser known aria or some Wagner perhaps.  Mr Kaufmann or his advisors may have been taking Nellie Melbas controversial advice to Clara Butt on tour in Australia: Sing em muck, thats all they will understand!  There were no German pieces until two Viennese encores.  Virtually all brackets were top-of-the-pops tenor items.  By contrast, a generation ago, each of the Three Tenors sang E la solita storia del pastore…’ from LArlessiana in their concerts something few of us will ever hear in the full opera.  Another regret is that no other singer was showcased, nor the marvellous chorus of our opera company but that is show-biz. 

I was also perplexed that both halves started with a concert piece.  Knowing the need to space out the vocalists high-octane output it would have seemed more logical to get on with it early. 

The rousing overture to the Sicilian Vespers was followed by Cavaradossis act I aria Recondita armonia from Tosca.  The Louisiana music from Manon Lescaut preceded the improvviso from Andrea Chenier by Giordano.  Then we had the Forza del Destino overture followed by its long tenor aria La vita è inferno all'infelice.  The entre act from Pagliacci was followed by Recitar Vesti la giubba to end the first half to an enormous (sitting) ovation. 

The bacchanale from Saint-Saens Samson and Delilah was followed by the flower song from Carmen.  The meditation from Thaïs by Massenet.  Pouquoi me reveiller? from Werther.  Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana then Mama, quel vino e generoso. 

After a universal standing ovation with serious foot stamping four encores started with Du bist die welt by Tauber (tenor and composer); E lucevan le stelle (Tosca); Catari Cor ngrato (written in Neapolitan dialect by American Cordillo); You are my hearts delight (verses in German then English).  Mostly Italian, but four other languages for the evening!  

It is clear that here is a man at the peak of his vocal and artistic talents who has discovered his extended staying power, like a marathon runner.  On the one hand he can sing extended roles like Siegmund and Parsifal and happily he can also sing up to a dozen arias for a concert like this which otherwise would need three or more normal tenors! 

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..