Andrew's Opera was previously published at http://www.redfernclinic.com/

21 July, 2022

Il Trovatore – Verdi – Sydney Opera House 15th July 2022

This was the third production for the Sydney winter season after Madama Butterfly and La Traviata (which I see later).  It was a homecoming for many of us with cruise ships again gracing Sydney Harbour and for our delectation, a full moon rising about 7pm over the harbour giving us back the magic atmosphere denied for so long due to Covid.  The moon has special relevance in this opera, too. 

It has been said that Il Trovatore requires four of the best singers in the world … and we had four capable principals, even if the tenor seemed very slightly off colour for two brief moments in the first half.  He also lacks modulation of his powerful delivery, occasionally going soft for a few bars then returning to forte voce seemingly at random.  In some ways opera is like a tight-rope walk and we are all the cliff-top spectators!  The fifth voice of David Parkin needs commendation as Ferrando who starts the action in fine basso form. 

As Leonora, American soprano Leah Crocetto certainly had all the notes and acted creditably despite being given some very unflattering costumes.  Our Azucena was Elena Gabouri who had both the lows and the highs in abundance.  Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee has thrilled audiences around the world’s great opera houses and he succeeded again as Manrico for his Sydney audience.  Belarusian baritone Maxim Aniskin played the evil Count di Luna with aplomb.  Like Scarpia in Tosca it is hard to like the man.  His Il balen aria was magnificent. 

This production was yet another in the series using mobile pixilated screens with an infinite range of coloured panoramae.  The genre started with The Ring in New York over ten years ago when the biggest screen was the size and shape of a child’s see-saw.  Now we have screens which are a couple of metres across and the height of the proscenium.  The video flexibility is so vast that no director can leave them still for very long.  In my view the scenery should largely remain unchanged during one aria, a chorus or an overture, so as not to distract from the vocal drama.  If we don’t understand the Italian we can follow the story from English titles … and stories of a burned baby hardly need the reinforcement of foetal skeletal images all over the stage. 

The opera chorus and orchestra under Maestro Battistoni performed superlatively, even though the ‘anvil chorus’ had no anvils … or even ‘cat like treads’ for that matter.  The singing was superlative.  Other boxes to tick include Ah si ben mio, Di quella pira, Miserere, Stride la vampa plus the shocking final scene with unexpected throat slashing. 

‘Trovatore’ or troubadour has a specific historical meaning being poets, musicians, dancers and philosophers of a bygone era in the west Pyrenees region and adjacent areas.  Being less serious about the art we were presented with an entire circus whose connection with the actual Troubadour was hardly important.  Clowns, acrobats, weidos, tympani, etc paraded on stage rather than the usual band of gypsy bandits.  Even the word ‘gypsy’ is now politically incorrect and fairly so considering all the negative connotations.  ‘Romani’, while of Indian origin, have a wide diaspora yet kept their identities both by being side-lined from mainstream society and suffering as a consequence right up to the Nazi period and beyond.  For Verdi’s purposes they were an exotic community whose friction with the establishment causes so many moments of high tension for his glorious music.  Our monastery where Leonora was to take her vows is now a hospital and the nuns all nurses tending sick patients who find themselves in a war zone.  A bit like hospitals nowadays. 

Much can be said about this production and people will either like it or hate it.  I don’t much care for the extent of the constantly changing backdrops and movement of the pixilated pillars.  But to hear fine voices in one of the great operas is a privilege we appreciate all the more due to its long absence during Covid.  Uniquely in this production Azucena stabs the count after slashing his neck as the curtain falls.  This prevents Di Luna’s immense regret after learning that he has just killed his very own brother!  Hence her mother’s death at the stake is avenged and there is yet another body left on stage. 

 

Written by Andrew Byrne ..

Some fine singing on this excerpt from the opera:  

Verdi: Il Trovatore (The Royal Opera) - YouTube

 

 

30 May, 2022

Pinchgut Opera, Orontea by Cesti 26/5/22. Wonderful fun!

Dear Colleagues,  

From its premier in Innsbruck in 1656, Cesti’s Orontea became one of the most popular operas of the time.  And why?  Because sex sells!  This opera contains gentle wooing, scenes of headstrong amorous moves and raunchy bedroom frolics.  And it is all in the text - which was projected as English titles to the sung Italian.  Pleasingly the entire libretto was also in the program.  Given a brilliant book by his second generation playwright Cicognini, Cesti adds melody, original orchestration, arias and duets to move the new art of opera ahead several steps.  

This performance proves that good opera does not require big casts, large orchestra or even a traditional proscenium stage.  The cut-down orchestra of 9 members made for a wonderful continuo using traditional 17th century instruments.  Each of the ten singers had substantial and interesting voices and all were tasked with portraying serious dramatic development in the complex tragi-comic plot.  The two non-singing roles were also crucial to the drama … the muse cupid, played by Ryan Smith, being on stage for the entire performance, even hanging from a high trapeze before the audience had filed in.  He grinned continuously at his hapless amorous victims while also doing cartwheels amongst his other complex choreography.  

Anna Dowsley played our heroine superbly, at first aloof to love then as involved as everyone else.  Jonathan Abernethy played the desirable but apparently lowly born artist Alidoro who conveniently travels with his mother Aristea (Dominica Matthews) from the Phoenician court.  

Playing the drunk is one of the challenges of the stage and basso Andrew O’Connor pulled off this feat with aplomb.  He handled at least 20 bottles of wine during the performance, taking a solo dreaming sleep scene in total control while seemingly severely drunk.  And amongst his fine deep basso singing he also hit two forte falsetto notes which would have shamed many a coloratura soprano!  And there were other ‘party tricks’, even a sailor-boy strip scene, double couple coitus interruptus and more.  

We welcomed the return of bass David Greco as Creonte.  He may be the only member of cast who is remotely sensible, reflecting on events worldly.  His brother Matthew is, in real life, first violinist and a permanent fixture of the company.  

The part of Corindo was written for a castrato. I was pleased that the company chose not to automatically use a counter-tenor.  None of us will ever know for sure the sound that castrati made but it is unlikely to be like what we hear from most counter-tenors today.  Douglas Kelly sang and acted a fully believable lover with his fine tenor voice and matching physique.  

For those who are followers of G&S, this opera plot has the essence of Patience at the start and HMS Pinafore at the end.  There is also a sense of the ‘Slave of Duty’ from Pirates as well in the Queen’s resolve.  ‘Nothing is new in the world’.  

The sets and settings were many and varied but piece de resistance perhaps was when the rear curtains opened to reveal a part-finished tableau ready for royalty’s likeness.  Our artist hero had palette in hand with his model Silandra in amorous mood painting each other’s bodies in ecstasy.  The rival, Queen Orontea then makes a dramatic entrance by slashing through the unfinished canvas to catch the lovers and claim her own prize, the ever desirable and desired Alidoro.  

Pinchgut ‘prime mover’ Maestro Erin Helyard received a huge ovation along with his bespoke orchestra and talented cast.  

Highly recommended if you can get a ticket.  

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

 Andrew's Opera (andrewsopera.blogspot.com)


04 April, 2022

Maria Stuarda at the Sydney Opera House Fri 25th March 2022

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS - Olga Peretyatko

ELISABETH I - Carmen Topciu

TALBOT - Richard Anderson

LEICESTER - Valerio Borgioni

 Conducted by Renato Palumbo

 This was a splendid outing of a Donizetti ‘Queen’ opera (the other two being Roberto Devereux and Anna Bolena).  It was the first time I have seen an opera ‘in concert’ in the opera theatre (1500 seats).  Many have been performed in the Concert Hall (2700 seats) which is currently nearing completion of major renovations. 

 It is such a pleasure to arrive at the glorious Sydney Opera House, mingle on the terrace with a glass of wine and attend a top cultural event after 2 years of stop-start Covid seasons.  We had almost a year in Sydney when we pretended Covid did not affect us, cut off as we were from the rest of the world.  Now the state of NSW is having up to 20,000 cases daily of what seems like a minor illness for most (Omicron variant).  At the same time New York City is having less than 1000 for reasons that are still not completely clear.  The logistics of daily RAT testing for orchestra, chorus, etc must be tedious and costly.  Masks are worn all round except when drinking or blowing an instrument (or singing!). 

 Back to the opera which I know and love mainly due to Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau’s wonderful recording with Pavarotti as Leicester. We also had a Sydney production in 1997 with Deborah Riedel and Amanda Thane.  It was originally intended for two sopranos yet the opening had mezzo Malibran singing and often one or other role is still sung by a mezzo-soprano.  The two queens exchange some of the nastiest insults imaginable as they almost tear each other’s eyes out in their out-door meeting (which historically never actually happened – but remember, this is opera!).  So bad is the regal language that the opera was banned in Naples which may be one reason it has never risen to the popularity of Lucia di Lammermoor, Elixir of Love or Fille du Regiment.  Also, despite lots of wonderful melodies, choruses and dramatic encounters, none of its arias has become a show-stopper.  Nor does it have cleverly lifted tunes which we find in Roberto Devereux (English National Anthem) and Anna Bolena (Home Sweet Home by Henry Bishop). 

 The star of our Sydney performance was Romanian mezzo Carmen Topciu with a large and expressive voice, breath control and stage presence as QE I.  Ms Peretyatko also sang well as Mary, keeping her final magnificent scena for her best.  As in act I of Lucrezia Borgia the soprano is required to sing a legato high note continuously for many bars while the chorus sings andante, then to do a forte run.  Very impressively and authentically done on this occasion as she heads for the block.  Mr Borgioni has a voice more suited to this part than Pavarotti ever did and he made beauty of the difficult tessitura and believable the drama of his place in the royal love triangle.  Mr Anderson is the local go-to basso and he did not disappoint in his major role as Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.  Maestro Palumbo and his orchestra gained a well deserved round of applause, as did the company chorus. 

 Again it is a privilege to hear such quality opera so near to home for Sydney-siders and I noted numerous visitors from out-of-town for this rare spectacle.  Even rarer was the opening night of Phantom of the Opera on a pontoon on Sydney Harbour across Farm Cove from us.  Obligingly the noisy Phantom fireworks occurred during our intermission.  Andrew Lloyd Webber was in town to supervise the first time his musical has been performed in the great out-doors. 

 Notes by Andrew Byrne .. recently retired doctor from Redfern via Bowral. 

 Andrew's Opera (andrewsopera.blogspot.com)


 

Ours was a concert performance, very cleverly lit from above with slick 

23 March, 2022

La Juive – Halevy, Sydney Opera House Sat matinée 12th March 2022

 Rachel – Natalie Aroyan

Eleazar – Diego Torre

Leopold (Samuel) – Francisco Brito

Princess Eudoxie – Esther Song

Cardinal de Brogni – David Parker

Conductor – Carlo Montenaro

 Here is a rare opportunity to see a 19th century Paris opera masterpiece in an enjoyable and original production with an exceptional cast.  Like a score of other composers this was one magnificent success out of many other failures (40 according to one source I read). 

 Although there is much, much more, opera fans must wait four acts to finally hear the famed tenor aria “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” in which Eleazar laments that after devoting his life to Rachel from the cradle he now he must deliver her to the executioner.  La Juive is a complex and harrowing story, not as consistent or profound as Merchant of Venice but with lots of twists and turns.  More than once a Jew turns out to be a gentile.   

 After big choral scenes, Latin mass extracts and dramatic revelations, the big tenor aria was sung with pathos and passion by Mr Torre (the short, racy but rarely performed cabaletta was omitted).  In the silence before act 5 there was a massive thump as about twenty clumps of shoes fell from height onto the full width of the stage.  It was one of the most shocking and unexpected ‘stunts’ I have seen on stage.  Due to their silvery grey colouring it was not immediately clear what the items comprised, at least from my seats in the front row of the circle.  Yet shoes they were, one of numerous reminders of the holocaust which was brewing in the period of this staging in 1930s France. 

 This story of religious devotion and prejudice is complex and sometimes contradictory.  At least three cast members are not who they seem to be.   But this is opera and each scene has strong characters in emotive situations with glorious lyrical vocals from huge Christian choruses to intimate farewells. 

 One reason this opera is so rarely performed is that there are two soprano parts, one dramatic and one coloratura.  Although written originally with Eleazar as a bass Halevy rewrote the part for the tenor so there are two big tenor roles as well.  Prince Leopold was ably played by Argentine Francisco Brito whose upper register rang out well both as the Prince and when dressed up to be the Jewish painter Samuel.  Local soprano Esther Song played Princess Eudoxie admirably.  David Parkin rose to the occasion at the Cardinal with some spare resonating low notes to his register. 

 Ms Aroyan, also a local, sang and acted with distinction, honourable to her father and her religion right to her immolation at the end when all is revealed just too late to save her (real) father’s anguish.  But this is opera.  As Bugs Bunny says: “Did you really expect a happy ending?”  What’s Opera Doc on Vimeo

 Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

 Aria y Cabaletta de Eleazar: Rachel quand du seigneur. - YouTube

 Neil Shicoff, tenor. Simone Young, conductor.  Vienna 1999. [cabaletta: ‘Dieu m’eclaire, fille chère’] 

 

10 March, 2022

Otello, Verdi, Sydney Opera House, Sat 19th Feb 2022. Follow-up notes.

 Dear Colleagues,

 My brief notes on Otello did not do justice to the piece which is one of the greatest works written for the operatic stage.  After further thought and some reading I offer the following observations about this work which I did not enjoy on first seeing it many years ago.  Leo Schofield used to distinguish the more ‘accessible’ works from those which were more profound yet less immediately appealing to some. 

Regarding The Moor of Venice I am now a devoted convert to both play and opera.  Discussion about Iago’s devious motivations, evidence, plot, history, etcetera goes on endlessly amongst experts … yet the basic theme of love, suspicion, jealousy and revenge are the relentless focus of this piece.  Boito’s libretto was such that they fully intended the opera to be called ‘Iago’ until the last stages of their collaboration when Verdi pushed for a return to ‘Otello’. 

The supposed rivalry between Wagner and Verdi was largely a fiction.  Born in the same year 1813, each rose to the top of their respective national schools of opera.  Furthermore both aimed at the perfect musical and vocal drama in their operas.  Living longer, Verdi came out of retirement at least twice to compose and revise 4 or more operas, Otello being second last to Falstaff, Verdi’s only mature comedy. 

Leitmotifs occur throughout Wagner’s operas yet Otello contains just one to my observation.  Otello’s love theme (or ‘another kiss’ as I call it) recurs three more times after its introduction in the act I love duet.  While many of Wagner’s musical motifs may go over the head of the average audience member, few would miss Verdi’s melody which is unmistakably linked to the love between Desdemona and Otello.  A similar device is used by Donizetti in Lucia di Lammermoor, another love theme which returns briefly but unmistakably in the Mad Scene. 

Boito was one of the very few composers who also wrote libretti (his revolutionary Mefistofele was first presented at La Scala in 1868).  He joins Wagner, Berlioz and Leoncavallo but uniquely, Boito also collaborated with others in successful operas.  His reduced version of Shakespeare’s Othello became a perfect foil for the elderly but enthusiastic Verdi. 

This brings us to the origin of the story which appears to be Cinthio’s 1565 ‘Un Capitano Moro’ (or “Disdemona and the Moor”) a short story which had not been translated into English until after Shakespeare’s time.  Along with many other pieces of evidence including the naming and feminist sentiments of Emilia in Othello, this has led some recent commentators to question whether William Shakespeare was presenting plays and sonnets originating from the pen of Emilia Lanier Bassano.  This fascinating woman came from a large Jewish musical family from northern Italy, several of whose members had been in the service of the court of Henry VIII.  See Atlantic article by Elizabeth Winkler Who Was Shakespeare? Could the Author Have Been a Woman? - The Atlantic

Now that should get people a-talking! 

Notes written by a still a-learning Andrew Byrne ..


22 February, 2022

Otello, Verdi, Sydney Opera House, Sat 19th Feb 2022.

 Otello – Yonghoon Lee

Desdemona – Karah Son

Iago – Marco Vratogna

Cassio – Virgilio Marino

Emilia – Sian Sharp

Roderigo – Hubert Francis

Montano – Andrew Moran

Lodovico – Richard Anderson

Herald – Andrew Williams

 

Dear Colleagues,

This was a magnificent return to the serious opera house after a plague-ridden period nobody wants repeated.  Harry Kupfer’s steep-stepped production has grown on me over the years.  It was conducted by rising Maestro Andrea Battistoni from Verona. 

 

For my overseas readers: By isolating from the rest of the world most of Australia avoided the pandemic for over a year.  From May 2020 to June 2021 NSW had either zero or single figure daily Covid cases, mostly in localised clusters associated with foreign arrivals.  Sydney even had an opera season of sorts while overseas houses were closed.  However, from mid-June 2021 we were struck with the delta and then the omicron Covid variants, plunging us in with the rest of the world for another six months. 

 

By January we were using frequent testing, shorter quarantine periods and a reduction in the severity and duration of the individual infections, especially in younger people were noted.  As a result, authorities recommended a return to normal life, schools reopened, offices, cafés and restaurants, etc were doing some normal business.  Since January a brave opera company has now put on La Boheme, Turandot, Nozze di Figaro and Otello.  Just today, overseas tourists can enter Australia freely for the first time in 2 years!!  25 flights are to land at Sydney airport today alone!  Welcome, World! 

 

This performance had the benefit of world-renowned tenor Yonghoon Lee who sang the socks of this gigantean role (as he had done in Turandot earlier in the season).  His singing was more nuanced that his hugely declamatory Calaf.  Desdemona was also Korean Karah Son sang with the style and dignity required.  She occasionally had momentary difficulty with long, high legato notes yet never petered out.  As Marilyn Horne once said: “OK, so you got phlegm; get over it!”  Our Iago Marco Vratogna was sufficiently evil both dramatically and vocally.  The duets were thrilling.  As was his Credo.  Cassio was under-cast compared to the substantial voices of the other three principal singers.  The other supporting roles and chorus were all excellent, each managing to perform on a huge staircase the full width of the stage (one remembers Joan Sutherland on a similar perilous staircase in Merry Widow!).  But no bed for the final Kupfer scene was just plain odd. 

 

The audience wore masks throughout and it was about 75% capacity.  The performance received huge applause for orchestra and at the final curtain.  It was so nice to see life returning to something like normal. 

 

For my own case it will be very different as I closed our addiction clinic after 38 years last weekend.  I will just see occasional dependency patients in the future and hope to do some research.  I will take in the last few weeks of the Met season in New York in May all being well with travel, viruses, weather events, wars and other global challenges. 

 

Best wishes to all my patient readers (you must be patient to have got this far!). 

 

Andrew Byrne ..

31 March, 2021

Sydney: 4 operas past season, 4 more this winter plus chamber classics.

Chamber music icons perform around the country while Sydney opera season returns with four classics from summer and another four to follow this winter.

The Tosca run ended near the Ides of March after a season which started with The Merry Widow followed by Ernani and Bluebeard’s Castle.  The last time a non-opera opened an opera season I castigated the management (My Fair Lady in 2008) but this time I have nothing but praise and admiration for a company which has reformed itself to a changing set of Covid rules as local cases waned towards zero.  Initially only 50% of seats could be sold for maximal distancing: then 75%, now 100% in mid-March for the fourth opera in the series.  In January there were limited pre-opera drinks only but by March intermission drinks were restored as long as patrons only mingled outdoors – and masks during the performance were compulsory. 

There have been rumours of pay cuts and cancelled contracts with orchestra and chorus members but at least they are now getting some work and the audience is seeing some high quality opera.  Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle is not my favourite opera yet the audience went wild at the end of the 55 minute shocking musical drama.  John Rayment’s contrasted lighting was amazing and orchestration brilliant yet the drama could overexpose the bass and mezzo-soprano in an opera lacking a chorus, tenor or soprano (!).  As Bluebeard’s newest wife Judith, Romanian mezzo-soprano Carmen Topciu was most impressive both dramatically and vocally.  The title role was bass Daniel Sumegi who kept up the incredible tension to the very end.  I’m not sure if Hungarian is a natural language for opera.  But at least I can now say that I have heard a quality performance of this repertoire classic in a major opera house.  Ernani was splendid so early Verdi fans should be happy to hear Natalie Aroyan is returning in another La Scala shared production Attila in winter (it was suspended after 2 performances a year ago due to Covid lock-downs). 

Tosca with soprano Carmen Giannattasio, tenor Diego Torre and bass baritone Marco Vratogna was simply splendid … conducted by brilliant young maestro Andrea Battistoni.   John Bell’s 1940’s updating seems to work better than most.  And a “first” on our performance, possibly due to women’s day and the current movement exposing violence against women: a large part of the audience burst into applause when Scarpia finally died after a hectic stabbing bout.  Furthermore, just after this, as Tosca is forgiving her attacker’s corpse, she covers the body with the Nazi banner which Cavaradossi had ripped down in his joyous ‘Vittoria’ strains.  So the production vilified Nazism. 

In the Southern Highlands front we have had two concerts in March … Australian Haydn Ensemble doing three string quartets by Pleyel, Mozart and Haydn on a Sunday afternoon at Burrawang.  Then a week later Selby and Friends did four piano trios at Chevalier College in Burradoo.  Featured were Turina, Bloch, Shostakovich and Schubert.  The first three were lovely snippets but the Schubert was a major musical world of joy, melody and playful harmonies between piano, ‘cello and violin.  All absolutely splendid and wonderful to think that these magnificent performers, many of whom have played in Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and other similar international venues, also tour to Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney venues. 

Artists coming from overseas had to spend 2 weeks in hotel quarantine, like the tennis players.  Nothing is easy.  We are very fortunate to be almost Covid-free in Australia. 

La Traviata on Sydney Harbour is on for most of April.  The new winter opera season starts on 22nd June with a ‘digital’ Aida followed by Otello, Attila and the Tales of Hoffmann.  The latter is with Jessica Pratt performing all 4 heroines following in Joan Sutherland’s footsteps from 1985.  Should be fun for all, except for the title tenor! 

04 February, 2021

Ernani by Verdi. Sydney Opera House 2nd Feb 2021.

 Dear Readers, 

We were privileged to see Verdi’s early masterpiece Ernani in a co-production with La Scala Milan.  Following last year’s Attila (also a Milan co-production but stymied after two performances by the Covid pandemic) we again heard soprano Natalie Aroyan and tenor Diego Torre as doomed lovers.  Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov was the king and Ukrainian Vitalij Kowaljow sang basso role of Silva.  All these singers, other soloists and chorus were at the highest level and put in sterling performances.  There were ravishing choruses, duets, trios and a quartet, all in excellent form with much exciting music included for the love ‘quadrangle’, populus and court.  The orchestra was also in fine form under Maestro Renato Palumbo, receiving a huge ovation in the single intermission. 

Nicely balancing the crazy Quixotic plot by Victor Hugo, this production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf became a ‘play within a play’.  During the overture our travelling troupe arrived with their bags and wide eyes to an open proscenium, flies, flats, ropes and curtain control wheels all visible … which venue became the various scenes for the opera.  I found it terribly clever while others said it was silly.  It certainly allowed numerous comic elements in an otherwise profound tragedy. 

Ms Aroyan sang and acted superbly, as did her three suitors.  Her Act I set piece ‘Surte e la notte’ was superb, comprising recitative, aria and cabaletta (with chorus).  This was one of the first and last arias recorded by Joan Sutherland about 25 years apart.  I heard more than one audience member saying that Aroyan was no Joan Sutherland.  Well, yes, but who is?  Netrebko is busy and may not cope with 2 weeks in quarantine.  Few top sopranos could sing all these notes, let alone carry off the role … and I don’t think Joan Sutherland ever did Ernani on stage either – and furthermore, her full recording was made when both she and Pavarotti were past their primes. 

Verdi wrote famously for the baritone and we were not disappointed with Mr Stoyanov.  Likewise Mr Kowaljow sang with a manly presence and velvet tone.  And Diego Torre put forward perhaps his best role yet, having a full bodied tenor range and ample volume.  We are fortunate that he is now a company member and an Australian citizen.  He commences the magnificent final trio, ‘Solingo errante e misero’ which was popularised by the Lincoln Centre concert with Pavarotti, Sutherland, Horne (Horne singing the baritone part!). 

Overseas artists must have travelled to Sydney with special permits and stayed in hotel quarantine for which we should all be appreciative.  Covid stringencies affect artists just like tennis players. 

How fortunate in Sydney that we had a 75% full auditorium (socially distanced, compulsory masks, no foyer mingling) of opera fans enjoying this art form once again in Sydney.  Covid has been at low levels here for 6 months and the last isolated cases were just two weeks ago.  Opera is indeed an “exotic and irrational entertainment” as per Dr Johnson’ dictionary.  One day someone will write an opera about Covid-19.  I wonder what Johnson would have made of The Merry Widow or Cats! 

Written by Andrew Byrne ..

 


Opera season resumes at Sydney Opera House with The Merry Widow.

Dear Readers, 

I have been to the opening night of a marvellous production of The Merry Widow, part of a four opera subscription season this summer (along with Ernani, Tosca and Bluebeard’s Castle).  We still have some Covid clusters in Sydney but life largely continues as usual.  The 50% capacity rule for live theatre was raised to 75% a few weeks ago and I estimate that was about the attendance last night.  Things can change very rapidly with Covid-19 so we are all on tenterhooks and taking all precautions and sanctions by our state governments. 

It was a strange feeling returning to familiar scenes in unfamiliar times ... masks compulsory, drinks pre-opera but NOT during intermissions; social distancing, digital tickets, logs in and out on QR codes, etc. 

Only once before did the opera company open their "opera" season with a piece from musical theatre rather than opera - My Fair Lady many years ago.  

More about 'Widow' from the usual reviewers … I enjoyed it greatly and felt that all singers were excellent, the show was non-stop fun.  Highly recommended!  Seats available from $40 to $335 see OA web site.  We had an extraordinary electrical storm here in Sydney after the opera ... quite theatrical!  And no charge!! 

Andrew Byrne ..



23 April, 2020

Met stream repeat of "at-home" gala this weekend.

Dear Opera Friends, 

The Met has been streaming one opera per day from both HD series and earlier archives. These are available by simply opening their web site and clicking on 'watch now'. Their unique initiative to engage performers and audience again began on April 25 with over 40 of their top artists performing from home. It was a great success but only available on-line for 24 hours. Most moving perhaps is 'Va pensiero' from Nabucco with chorus and orchestra members somehow coordinated digitally, conducted from Canada by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Clever audio mixing, clever camera work and magnificent choral opera at its best. Your favourite singers and very likely some of your favourite solos in a 4 hour spectacular. A couple of duets, too. We now learn that singing is a potent transmitter of Covid virus and it is depressing to think that normality in the entertainment world may not return until a vaccine is found. Best wishes from Andrew Byrne in Sydney, NSW where we are very fortunate to be almost Covid-free (only one community case in past 2 weeks). https://www.metopera.org/ https://andrewsopera.blogspot.com/

29 March, 2020

Last Tango in Sydney-Attila at SOH-Great production, great singing of early Verdi work.

Dear Colleagues,

In the weeks before the storm clouds of Covid 19 gathered I was privileged to attend a series of moving cultural events culminating in the opening night on 12th March of Attila at the Sydney Opera House, a co-production with La Scala, Milan, conducted by Andrea Licata.  I attended with my sister and brother-in-law from Perth, WA plus a lot of local dignitaries, pollies and other free-loaders.  Broadcast on ABC Classic FM radio: https://www.abc.net.au/classic/programs/sunday-opera/sunday-opera-verdi-attila/12083484

The sets used some ruined stone arches from antiquity joined to modern steel girder structures.  These opened and closed, just like the windows of opportunity for peace and war between all-conquering Attila and a failing Roman state. 

As Odabella Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan was strident and accurate for the requirements of this stentorian role (her opening scene is my ‘desert island piece’ and I was not disappointed – go to 14 minutes in on ABC audio if you dare).  Taras Berezhansky sang the title role with his resplendent bass voice and elegant frame while tenor Diego Torre sang Foresto using his magnificent spinto, perhaps the best we have heard from a resident tenor since the days of Donald Smith.  Italian baritone Simone Piazzola played Ezio the Roman general, also not missing a beat along with Australian trained tenor Virgilio Marino playing Uldino.  All were top notch and up to the enormous demands of the roles.  I note while listening the ABC broadcast that Mr Piazzola sang his declamatory and patriotic second act aria ending on a most exciting B flat, a note usually reserved for tenors (1hr 28m).  


A formal review of the opera could take some pages … very little to criticise and much to praise.  The cold-blooded shooting of numerous female captives in the opening scene was a little shocking but emphasised the gall and spirit of Odabella in addressing the King of the Huns.  A great sadness that the season was curtailed after the second performance and that so few will see this magnificent work (even the opening was only half full).  It was the Australian premiere.  And we may not see it again for a very long time.  

I had seen Attila at Carnegie Hall in 2003 with Lauren Flanagan and then again in 2010 in a wonderful production at the New York Met.  On that occasion we met some cast members backstage afterwards including bass Samuel Ramey and conductor Marco Ameliato.  Mr Ramey had sung the title role in 2003 and in his ‘retirement’ sang the small role of Pope Leo in the Met production 7 years later.  He may be the last living singer from the ‘Golden Age’ [sic] of Opera which included Joan Sutherland. 

My pre-corona season had started 3 weeks earlier with a concert by young singers for our NSW Wagner Society.  My immediate reaction was that young singers should not be singing Wagner.  Fortunately the program was balanced and ‘safe’ including some Weber, R. Strauss, Humperdinck, Beethoven and Marx.  There followed a fun Sydney Mardi Gras party - a sedate gathering of young and old the night before the big parade.  Then a wonderful Selby and Friends chamber group concert called ‘A Tale of Two Cities: St Petersburg and Vienna’.  Ms Selby at the piano with clarinet, violin and ‘cello we heard works by Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky and Arensky.  The Arensky piano trio in D minor was most novel and impressive and it appears I have been missing this wonderful late Russian composer and will seek out more of his works. 

During this period I also celebrated my brother’s birthday in Erskineville then my nephew’s engagement in Potts Point, a gay wedding of an old school friend and long-time Aboriginal partner on Sydney Harbour then sadly there was the funeral of a friend in the Southern Highlands (not Covid related).  During February my niece’s young medical student colleague was holed up on the Diamond Princess in Japan with regular bulletins from his parents and sibs isolation on board – portending what is now happening around the globe.  And I continue working at the medical clinic near Sydney's Central Station (where there are very few travellers nowadays).  

With regards and wishes for more strength to all readers for the difficult days ahead. 

Andrew Byrne ..

https://www.abc.net.au/classic/programs/sunday-opera/sunday-opera-verdi-attila/12083484

Andrew’s opera: https://andrewsopera.blogspot.com/
Andrew’s blog: https://ajbtravels.blogspot.com/

28 March, 2020

I’m on a Handel High ! In praise of Semele !


Dear Colleagues (it’s long, so get a coffee or press delete!),


Semele by George Friderich Handel – novel opera of great genius, unfairly overlooked. 

This it to praise the joys of Handel’s magnificent masterpiece of 1744 and to recommend the numerous recordings and YouTube versions available to readers. 

Handel changed the face of opera, concert and choral music in a long career from Germany to Rome and then to London where he was virtually adopted by the English and even became a naturalised citizen.  Handel was born in the same year as JS Bach, Domenico Scarlatti and John Gay, 1685. 

Handel wrote 40 operas in 30 years, most of which disappeared into obscurity until the 1950s when enthusiasts in England and America became interested to re-create these works using original instruments and the vocal devices and techniques of the baroque period (excluding castrati!). 

Apart from some recent praise, unkind things have sometimes been written on this list like: ‘all his music sounds the same: they just change the title’.  However, closer listening reveals a mature genius in melodic invention, dramatic flow and orchestral originality.  This is certainly the case with Semele.  Most Handel operas have one aria which became a memorable showpiece.  Ombra mai fu (‘Handel’s largo’ from Serse); Torami a vagheggiar (Alcina); Let the bright Seraphim (Samson); Care selve (Atalanta); V’adoro, pullilae (Julius Caesar); Where shall I fly? (Hercules); Lascia, ch’io pianga (Rinaldo); Dove sei, amato bene (Rodelinda).  

Apparently some in London were sick and tired of Italian operas.  Samuel Johnson even defined opera in his dictionary in 1755 as ‘an exotic and irrational entertainment’.  ‘Exotic’ in those days meant foreign.  So Handel moved with the times and wrote Semele to an English libretto penned from the Ovid’s Metamorphoses about the illicit liaison between Jupiter and Semele to the consternation of his wife Juno and with the conniving of Semele’s sister Ino.  The last lines of the opera allude to the birth of Bacchus, son of Semele and Jupiter and bringer of mirth, joy and libido. 

However, when in early 1744 the libretto was presented to Covent Garden as a raunchy piece involving sex out of marriage, betrayal, death on stage, etc, it was determined that it could not be staged during Lent, a season of solemn self deprivation.  Brilliant tactician as he was, Handel told the management and his publisher that Semele was an opera “in the manner of an Oratorio”.  Hence it was performed from the concert platform in English to the delight of the public.  London did not want to miss out again on the first performance as they had with Messiah which opened in Dublin after London found it inappropriate for a church.  Like Messiah, Semele was reportedly written in about a month, a phenomenal feat, especially for someone who had a recent heart attack. 

Messiah has become one of the most popular choral pieces of all time (see excellent videos from Trinity Church Wall Street).  It is my view that Semele should have been as popular, such are its enormous musical, vocal and dramatic virtues.  Semele’s time may have finally arrived as a few serious performances have been given and mainstream opera companies are turning their attention to Handel.  YouTube provides some impressive examples (see below for some recommended links including Cecilia Bartoli in Zurich). 

Some say Semele is Handel’s best opera.  I heard Charles Mackerras spoke highly of the work and conducted Joan Carden in the title role in Australia.  Just the second act has three of the most famous arias ever written … ‘Iris Hence Away’ for the mezzo-soprano; ‘Sleep, why do’est thou leave me’ for the soprano and ‘Where ‘ere you walk’ for the tenor.  Do many (or any?) other operas have three immortal arias in just one act?  All singing students should learn some Handel … and often one of the above - but only when they are quite advanced in their training since these are all major exercises in breathing, coloratura and ornamentation. 

The soprano sings two phenomenal pieces each of which dwarfs even the Queen of Night’s arias by Mozart.  ‘Myself I shall adore, should I persist in gazing’; ‘No, no, I'll take no less …’.  Semele could become my favourite opera (equal with Norma?). 

Notes and hyperbolae by Andrew Byrne in Sydney ..  (quivering at the prospect of visiting New York in 3 weeks despite Coronavirus threat). Will the Met stay open, I wonder?  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FibDMWk0i5k

Zurich Opera with C. Bartoli


Rosemary Joshua soprano classy.  C. Curnyn 2007





A very alternative and modern production from Long Beach Opera.


Phenomenal soprano antics.  ?who ?where Simone Kermes?


Boston Handel/Haydn society web site is very impressive and instructive. 

17 August, 2019

Kaufmann, Westbroek, Tezier excel in Andrea Chenier at Sydney Opera House.

Jonas Kaufmann as Andrea Chenier at the Sydney Opera House – Thurs 8th August 7pm 

I am still reeling in the after-glow of this magnificent outing of Giordano’s masterpiece, Andrea Chenier. 

55 years ago a determined impresario obtained the services of three of the world’s greatest singers to perform Andrea Chenier in Tokyo.  Happily Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco and Aldo Protti were filmed for Japanese television and the B&W DVD is one of my prized opera recordings.  Their performances are all staggering and the applause equally enthusiastic in this fully staged version.  Now, decades later in Sydney and Melbourne we have three great singers at their peaks in this same opera, in concert. 

We were fortunate to hear German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and French baritone Ludovic Tezier.  Any one of these opera stars should have ensured a full house … but to hear all three with numerous superb Australian singers, chorus and orchestra in Utzon’s ‘wunder-barn’ yielded one of the best nights at the opera since Sutherland and Pavarotti sang here together in 1983. No costumes, no wigs, no sets.  Just glorious vocalism as its best.  The Concert Hall performances were options in the year’s season subscription.  In fact they were a major draw-card. 

Giordano’s brilliance shines through time and again in this wonderful opera … illuminating Luigi Illica’s moving and tragic libretto.  Chenier is a revolutionary poet and he addresses country, love, honour, chivalry, charity, justice and punishment to a rare dramatic perfection.  Monsieur Tezier sings a stunning ‘Son sessant’anni’ to set the scene for revolution; then his equally stentorian ‘Nemico della patria’ to ensure the opera’s unhappy ending.  The tenor has four arias in the two long acts, starting with ‘Un dì all'azzurro spazio’ Mr Kauffman devotes enormous vocal and dramatic energy to each piece.  Ms Westbroek, who sang Sieglinde at the Met recently, sang her famous aria ‘La Mamma morta’ which brought the house down before their final duet ‘Vicino a te’. 

Sian Sharp (Pendry), Anna Dowsley, Ben Rasheed, Richard Anderson, Luke Gabbedy, Domenica Matthews, Jonathan Alley, Christopher Hillier, Alexander Hargraves and Graeme Macfarlane all sang significant roles with style and flair. 

One of the unique performances belonged to Gerard, the manor valet who first evokes the anti-patrician sentiments, uniforms, generations of servants and service without recognition, remuneration or choice.  And looking francishly elegant, Monsieur Tezier wore a bespoke arch-cut tuxedo in deepest green and black which was a ‘uniform’ of sorts emphasising his designated station in life.  And he sang the demonstrative notes of this magnificent role, almost equalling the amazing feat of Aldo Protti in the old TV recording from Tokyo (still available on-line).  While the lovers inevitably take the lime-light at the glorious ending (Madame Guillotine notwithstanding) it is the baritone who carries much of the dramatic weight of this unique work. 

Israeli Sabra Pinchas Steinberg conducted the Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus.  He was clearly au fait with the piece but for some reason took the start of Act II at a ridiculously fast pace, seemingly to prove that the instruments could keep up, which they seem to have, but few audience ears could have done so in my view.  The chorus likewise did as required to great effect, although this is not a great choral opera. 

There were shades of modern Hong Kong in the story line, such is the revolutionary spirit there just now. 

There are few operas in my experience with as many spine tingling moments as Andrea Chenier and it will a long time before the privileged Sydney audience forgets this experience.  I spoke to two patrons who were determined to re-live the performance on the Sunday matinee following.  Good luck to them! Another decided against it, ‘lest it dent the indelible impression of the prima’. 

Notes by Andrew Byrne .. Sydney addiction physician.

If you want YouTube treat try the improviso https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTGERozgjPw

Equally the last 10 minutes of the opera are splendid … as our heroes the lovers face the guillotine. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1Mb7NVKsz4 
Or in B&W TV from Tokyo in 1961: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbjAKdZ8FT0




11 May, 2019

Tenor Michael Fabiano wows audience in Sydney Werther.

Werther at the Sydney Opera House.  Friday 22nd Feb 2019

The Sydney audience gave a rare standing ovation for American tenor Michael Fabiano after four relentless acts of this devolving tragedy.  Unlike most operas, Werther has a simple story line of unrequited love leading to suicide.  And Massenet’s evocative orchestration and vocals take us through every stage from observation, recognition, desire, love, lust, envy, loss, anger to despair and death.  Haunting solos and dramatic duets reach incredible operatic high points in each of four acts and this is against the banal backdrops of a family gathering, street scene, a church anniversary and a Christmas dinner. 

We last saw this opera a decade ago with its charming and innovative production by Michael Yeargan and Elijah Moshinsky.  The clever use of indoor/outdoor settings well suits the story which takes place in a home, garden and village square.  An initial stage coup sees an entire sheet of shimmering silk covering all on stage, tables, chairs, bicycle, toys, fence, etc. As the prelude progresses it was almost imperceptibly pulled away, ‘sucked’ into a hole in the middle of the stage!  All is revealed: a weird and wonderful exposé for the scena of bright green grass, garden furniture, festooned entrance architrave, etcetera.

Charlotte was well sung by Elena Maximova who played Olga to the Tatiana of Anna Netrebko at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017.  Young sister Sofie was ably played by Stacey Alleaume with her several impetuous but melodious teenage interjections.  Luke Gabbedy cut a fine Albert while other supporting singers rose to the very substantial occasion for a well balanced performance. 

Werther is best known for its Act III tenor aria Pourquoi me reveiller which Mr Fabiano sang to perfection … as we once heard Luciano Pavarotti do likewise in this same opera house (in concert).  The connected duetto was vocally satisfying and emotionally wrenching, preparing us for the Act IV death scene. 

We first heard Michael Fabiano here as Faust in 2015, then in Lucia in 2018.  His voice may have broadened and his technique become more nuanced and shaded, each vocal phrase carefully crafted.

With its newly functional pit ‘enhancement’ the orchestra sounded full bodied under the baton of Maestro Carlo Montanaro.  As with the vocals, there is a particular style for French tempo, timbre and temperament.  Massenet would have been delighted at the modern presentation of his 1892 masterpiece. 

The opening night audience will long remember being bowled over by the vocal power and intense drama contrasted with subtlety and equipoise of Michael Fabiano’s stentorian performance.  Along with his fellow artists and bright production this is a ‘must-see’ opera.  There are seven more performances so opera lovers in reach of Sydney should get a ticket quickly (there are plenty available according to the company’s web site). 


Notes by Andrew Byrne ..




09 October, 2018

Culture and tulips in the Southern Highlands.


One does not have to travel to Sydney as the arts come to the Southern Highlands on a regular basis.  Ruddigore is one of the least known Gilbert and Sullivan works but is a dark classic, famous for patter songs.  It originally ran in London in 1887 for 300 performances and earned Mr Gilbert 6000 pounds.  I last saw it in Armidale, NSW, in 1965!  The Bundanoon Soldiers’ Hall performance on Sat 29th September was full and frolicsome.  G&S were forerunners of today’s West End and Broadway musicals. 

Selby and Friends concerts continue in Mittagong and Bowral, returning to their original location, now fully refurbished, at Chevalier College in 2019.  Every two months for many years renowned pianist Kathryn Selby has brought three or four virtuoso musicians for a chamber concert centring on Beethoven but featuring many others from before and since including some contemporary works.  The concerts are always an entertainment and often an education as well, ideally timed for 5pm on Saturday evenings.  Next concert is Sat 13 October. 

The Australian Haydn Ensemble continue their performances, the latest at Kangaloon Hall on Sat 6th October with the same program played the following day at the Sydney Opera House, Utzon Room (Winx on the sails!).  This featured an important 19th century genre being transcriptions of full symphonic works for smaller groups of instruments.  This was the only way most people living away from the big centres (as most did) would ever hear the great symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and others.  We were treated to a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s first symphony in C by 6 string instruments plus flute.  It was brilliant, being both familiar and different at the same time.  

Local born pianist Andrew Rumsey has been doing a popular French duet program around the towns too including the Rose Room in Burradoo.  Too much on for me to get there but it must have been fun. 

I have seen the tulips in Bowral each week for the past several and while some beds are over their peak, there are still lots to see … and finally the double Japanese cherry is starting to flower.  With some light rain, nobody is complaining. 

Best wishes to locals and visitors alike. 

Andrew Byrne ..