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23 February, 2017

Nazi period Tosca revival triumph of the voice and drama.

Tosca – Sydney Opera House – Friday 17th Feb 2017
For the first time I can recall the national company has put on an opera with four imported artists of international calibre.  And it shows.  This is a stunning outing of the John Bell Tosca set in Nazi occupied Rome, swastikas, straight-arm salutes, Hitler youth and all.  It is dramatically intact and intense.  But most importantly, we are bathed in a tsunami of vocalism from start to finish. 
Richard Anderson as Angelotti started proceedings with his booming bass, followed by Luke Gabbedy as the adenoidal Sacristan.  Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta and Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai then gave us a believable and at times funny lovers scene followed by the stentorian Te Deum with veteran Italian baritone Lucio Gallo and chorus almost raising the roof.  This scene with its gradual crescendo and rhythmic beat was so penetrating that I hummed it for days. 
The three main roles showed that they were star material in their own ways.  Most impressive was after a fine rendition of Tosca’s prayer Vissi d’arte the final note on the simple word “cosi”.  This was taken beyond the score to a fine diminuendo and then ultimately a plosive bleat with devastating effect.  It makes one appreciate that Ms Arteta is doing something novel for her money.  Just singing the notes for Cavaradossi is enough to earn his fee … yet Mr Ilincai did more than that, looking the part and acting well.  Signore Gallo had what it takes, looking more like a gentleman than a rapist, but that’s the part he plays in Rome of the day. 
Grand opera is like international sport and without top stars it cannot survive with seats costing over $300 each.  Like the Williams sisters, Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Michael Phelps, these exemplary singers have role models in their field.  The national company seems to have finally realised this and we are now hearing top class singers again. 
Mr Badea (the fourth imported artist) kept up the pace with a huge ovation before act 3 for his orchestra.  The chorus, comprimario singers and boy soprano were all also excellent. 
I make a point of sitting further back than most reviewers, about half way to the rear of the hall.  On this occasion even patrons in the most distant seats would not have missed one note, such was the sheer power of the singing.  Unlike many of this company’s opera reprises this is certainly worth a return visit. 
BTW, Nabucco live from the Met was finally shown in Australian cinemas last weekend and was a triumph and a pleasure.  Placido Domingo is near 80 years of age yet is able to portray every emotion and sing the baritone socks off the weakened Babylonian king.  Liudmyla Monastyrska played Abigaille (the “soprano-killer” role) while Dimtry Belosselskiy sang a forceful Rabbi-in-charge.  The staging by John Napier and Elijah Moshinsky is simply brilliant. 
This is the final production before the opera theatre closes for major renovations.  The "season" now goes into 'homeless' mode with various venues, concert performances but still some phenomenal repertoire.  Later in the year we look forward to Thais, Verdi's Manzoni Requiem, Parsifal and Madama Butterfly (Capitol).  
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

14 February, 2017

A new star appears in Sydney ... Ermonela Jaho becomes Violetta.

La Traviata – Sydney Opera House – Friday 3rd February 2017.
This re-run of the very fine Moshinsky production of La Traviata included Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Violetta.  The company's web site quotes The Economist as saying she is the world's “most acclaimed soprano”, a ridiculous thing to write and even more ridiculous to quote.  But it did make me rather look forward more than usual to a Sydney Opera opening of this over-exposed warhorse of the Sydney operatic stage. 
Like the role of Norma, Violetta requires every quality a soprano can harbour.  And Ms Jaho showed in the first act that she has the requisite coloratura and bravura … but better was to come.  Her nuanced dramatic vocals in Acts 2 and 3 were little short of phenomenal and she received big ovations.  She is a fine actress, taking some small but appropriate liberties with the tempi, clearly evoking every sentiment of the intense drama.  Her voice has a slightly plum-in-mouth quality at times and at the start she almost sounded like a full-voiced mezzo-soprano.  She had slightly imperfect pitch on some high notes to my ear, a small criticism.  Yet she handled an exciting high E flat to end her Act I cadenza and the ‘fire-in-the-fowl-house’ tessitura leading up to it.  And later duets Dite alla giovine and Parigi o Cara were splendid as especially was her Addio del passato and its weakening pulse.  Not since Sutherland's days have we heard such subtle and sublime strains in this great role. 
Her paramour Alfredo was played by competent Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung.  He looked the part and took most of the difficult options.  A pleasant if slightly ‘dry’ voice he was singing with two world class artists, including Jose Carbo who sang and acted superbly as Papa Germont.  His Di Provenza was superlative, followed by the much maligned but to my taste brilliant cabaletta.  We are fortunate that Mr Carbo has chosen to stay in Australia.  With his talents he could sing anywhere. 
The conducting of Maestro Palumbo was the exact opposite of Simone Young from when this production was new about 15 years ago.  He kept all the orchestral parts low-key, low contrast and without the pauses others might use.  So it was very much a symphonic continuo which did not draw attention to the pit.  During some of the soprano solos in acts 2 and 3 maestro seemed to make major allowances for the singer, each of which paid off artistically.  Ms Young insisted on the entire score as written by Verdi, including two verses of Ah fors'e lui. 
The other solo parts were all well sung and the chorus was highly schooled vocally and dramatically. 
It is hard to absolve the company for their ludicrous decision to perform the Polish opera King Roger in their mainstream season.  This is a connoisseur’s piece which has had numerous single outings in the last 90 years but has never gained traction with regular audiences.  I found the story to be superficial and the poetry banal and empty.  Melodies are hard to find and repetitive rhythmic beats are somehow reminiscent of Satyagraha by Glass.  Neither is my cup of operatic Earl Grey … but each to their own!  As for the brilliant Covent Garden co-production, wasted in my view on King Roger … the opening lighting of a massive sculpted head is simply brilliant.  I would use the set for an opera on Freud and psychoanalysis.  Any takers? 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..