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15 January, 2017

Four nights running of La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House.

La Boheme – Puccini – Sydney Opera House.  Thursday 5th January 2017.
This was an auspicious debut for accomplished Australian soprano Greta Bradman who sang the role of Mimi with skill, power and finesse.  She played a most credible lover, bon vivant and, finally the consumptive.  Her voice has a very pleasing timbre with volume to spare, tasteful diminuendos and occasionally a slightly metallic quality in the high range. 
Like most of the decisions of the national company recently it seemed a little odd to cast Ms Bradman as Mimi, yet she acquitted herself with aplomb and professionalism.  She could sing the Queen of Night, Bellini heroines, Handel characters or Rusalka since her range and capabilities are wide.  Bradman was second cast after the gala opening with Italian Mariangela Sicilia who also sang creditably the previous night (yes, I went twice – and I have a day job).  Originally it was Nicole Car billed to sing opening night but a search now places her as being in Montreal (I was told she is expecting a baby - congrats!). 

Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung sang Rodolfo with strength and accuracy (a countryman had sung the role on opening night).  His high notes rang with an even clarity and excitement.  Australian audiences are used to the optional high C at the end of Act I and this tenor did not disappoint.  When singing together Chung and Bradman were splendid, almost reminiscent of the recording of Caruso and Melba.  I had goose bumps numerous times, a good measure of this person’s satisfaction.  Taryn Fiebig sang Musetta’s fiery role well but I was intrigued that Christopher Tonkin as Marcello seemed under-powered and reticent on opening night yet opened up and sang brilliantly on the second.  Perhaps he was daunted, as anyone would, at singing a major role four nights running, something no professional opera company should ask an opera singer to do (his role was not paired). 
The production by Gale Edwards and Brian Thomson was said to be set in Germany, rather odd for an opera clearly set in Paris.  Yet there seemed nothing particularly German about the setting although it deviated from the librettists rather detailed instructions but was an enjoyable and original variation.  The original change was that Marcello was not simply painting a canvas of the parting of the Red Sea (the opening lines of the opera).  He was painting the entire inside of a huge octagonal barn which we see in preparation in Act 1 then in magnificent biblical panorama in Act IV.  The English translations take many liberties, seemingly in an effort to be over-funny and/or raunchy.  It is totally unnecessary as the original, faithfully translated, is sheer brilliance.  The Café Momus scene contained a coup-de-theatre with velveted opera boxes suddenly rotating out of the walls, revealing a mirrored audience including fops, pimps, drags and a naked lady or two. 
The chorus and orchestra under Maestro Carlo Montanaro were all excellent as usual.   I am ever mystified at the shortage of Australian conductors engaged by this company. 
This near-perfect work, like the Scottish play, has many historical quirks.  Caruso is said to have pushed a warm sausage into the hand of Melba before singing ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’.  Caruso once sang the basso ‘Coat’ aria facing away from the audience when the character playing Colline had a sudden bout of  laryngitis.  A multitude of fish, birds and animals are mentioned in the libretto which can make a good trivia question.  Whale, trout, salmon, herring, beaver, peacock, parrot, vixen, viper, horse, toad are just a few which come to mind.  The inscription on Melba’s gravestone: ‘Addio, senza rancor’ is from this opera.  Pavarotti once said that he liked to debut in every new opera house with the role of Rodolfo (a sign of his laziness on the one hand, yet his vocal perfection at performing this challenging role). 
Another bonus of the harbourside venue are the evening departure of huge ocean liners just before curtain time (Celebrity Solstice, Nordaam, Voyager of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas this week).  But the internal tragedy is the demise of our long running repertory company, replaced with the new ‘festival company’ under present management.  We now have a limited number of staged performances of mostly popular and over-exposed operas in place of ~15 high quality operas to choose from each year previously.  And now we have a government report proving what is obvious to any opera goer, pointing out that Opera Australia has effectively double-dipped by taking funds for opera while producing a large proportion of musicals which are commercially viable, unlike grand opera which is the purpose of an opera company and the government grants it receives.  See some extracts below for those who might be interested in the gory detail. 
Comments by Andrew Byrne .. Andrew's blog
The National Opera Review – Final Report dated 2016 and signed by Helen Nugent, Andrew McKinnon, Kathryn Fagg and Moffatt Oxenbould. 
Extract from Executive Summary (p i-viii):
While the Review supports [each company having] … its own artistic and strategic direction … it also recommends … that the companies should be penalised if agreed funded activities are not delivered (Recommendations 5.6 to 5.9).
The Review also recommends that significant commercial activities, such as Opera Australia’s long-run musicals, should not be funded because there are viable independent commercial competitors in the market (Recommendations 5.10 and 5.11). This is a significant conclusion of the Review. This is not to suggest that Opera Australia should not continue to stage musicals on a purely commercial basis.
Artistic vibrancy
The number, balance and quality of mainstage productions is integral to the future of opera as an artform and the success of the companies.
It is the very lifeblood of each opera company, providing the basis for artistic engagement with audiences and the employment of artists. But, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), it has also been the financial Achilles heel of each Major Opera Company, making a growing negative financial contribution.
Opera Australia and Opera Queensland, in particular, have responded to this challenge by reducing the number of mainstage productions and/or performances they offer and, in the case of Opera Australia, by offering longer runs of frequently repeated popular mainstage operas.
The unintended consequence has been that audience numbers for mainstage opera have declined and employment opportunities for artists have significantly decreased.
The Review considers that such a situation is not sustainable. To that end, it recommends that core funding should be provided for a defined number of mainstage productions. More specifically, it is recommended that … [various specific numbers of  productions for each state and national opera companies].  
See full report for details and apologies for these incomplete and selected quotes.