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06 April, 2015

Pontoon Aida on Sydney Harbour.

Aida - Verdi - Mrs Macquaries Chair, Sydney Harbour Fri 27th March 2015.

I am still in two minds about the Handa Harbour Opera in Sydney each autumn. On the one hand I love opera and applaud any attempt to bring it to a wider audience - and it is indeed a spectacle of opera and more. On the other hand, there are major draw-backs which make me positively cringe. The singers have to be amplified and thus we lose their one unique feature being the natural voice direct to the audiences ears as in the opera house. Furthermore, a month of outdoor opera monopolises a large part of the Sydney foreshores for a strange and irrational art form enjoyed by only a privileged minority of our community. The noisy display of fireworks during and after the show is another aspect which some may criticise. And then we have the weather (which is probably why they invented the opera house in the first place).

The main singers were strong apart from a miscast tenor, Walter Fraccaro. The role is tough and the most difficult aria occurs in the first 10 minutes of the opera. Like Otello, Verdis next and second last opera, the tenor role is suitable for only a very small proportion of tenors and Mr Fraccaro is no longer amongst them (if he ever was). He did warm up to some degree and he sang all of the notes.

The weather and ambiance were perfect for a gala opening, Sydneys dusk providing a backdrop for a drink and sustenance at tables on parapets constructed high above the water, all in view of the opera set. The pontoon sported a colossus of Nefertitis head, surrounded by dozens of red 44 gallon drums. Intriguing and talking points for the early arrivals. The original bust is in the Neues Museum in Berlin and is one of the most beautiful representations of the human form, crafted in the 18th dynasty ~1300BCE under the rule of Akhenaten, Nefertiti’s husband.

The performance of Verdis Egyptian masterpiece was most exciting on the whole with other principals, chorus and orchestra under Maestro Castles-Onion. For the start of the Triumphal Scene the long-necked statue slowly rotated to reveal the Pharaoh and his entourage miraculously in place and on time for the scene. Two magnificent camels strode back and forth across the faux proscenium with prisoners and carts full of booty and plunder for Pharaohs approval. Two rows of angled black plastic coffins reminded us of body bags of recent campaigns and the carnage of war as the victors celebrated and the vanquished mourned. And we even got the fabled Mexican E flat at the scenes end - although it could not have been sung by Ms Latonia Moore who, despite a vast talent in the dramatic soprano range would have to be super-human to have a sustained E flat in the voice***. Of course, being amplified, another singer could easily sub for the note as happened once in Macbeth with the Australian Opera decades ago (sung from the wings as the soprano turned away from the audience). For that matter any capable member of the ladies chorus could venture the high note (which is unwritten and dramatically inappropriate coming from the slave girl).

The Nile scene was magnificent and well exemplifies Verdis genius melding drama and vocal lines as the lines are sung: La gole di Napata. This revealed, like Wikileaks today, the unguarded remarks of the Commander in Chief who is thereby disonorato (dishonoured), leading to his being condemned to death in the judgment scene before the operas end in the tomb scene, Amneris pleading for peace (Pace, pace way above in Nefertitis damaged eye socket) as the music comes to an end.

Other details of the production would take pages of descriptions clever manoeuvres and devices, mostly straight from the book. Costumes were from cybermen outfits to Victorian dresses, white military uniforms and a loud, multicoloured balloon dress for Aida herself, looking like New Orleans fiesta.

So my advice for anyone in Sydney is to try to get a seat. The rear side seats are great value at just under $100 each. And try to borrow a program as there are no cast lists and the glossy programs are quite expensive. The food and drink are also at inflated prices, but thats what one would expect for such a venue. The slow service is also typical of the genre so get there early if you wish to partake and support the enterprise beyond the seat price.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
*** Note Aug 2017: I have now purchased the video of this wonderful performance and have to concede that for all appearances Ms Moore does indeed sing the E flat ending the Triumphal March.  Humble apologies! 
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