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31 July, 2018

Opera trifecta ... glorious vocal drama at Sydney Opera House winter 2018

Lucia di Lammermoor with Jessica Pratt, Michael Fabiano, Giorgio Caoduro, c. Carlo Montanaro. 
Rigoletto with Dalibor Jenis, Gainluca Terranova, Irina Lungu, Taras Berezhansky, c. Renato Palumbo. 
Aida with Amber Wagner, Elena Gabouri, Riccardo Massi, Warwick Fyfe, Roberto Scandiuzzi, c. Andrea Battistoni. 

Dear Colleagues,

I feel very torn having seen three truly magnificent opera performances while at the same time seeing further evidence of a company on a path to self-destruction.  Each year Opera Australia has contained less opera and less Australian content under present management.  There is no opera at all for three months of the year (musicals take centre stage) and most of the main opera roles are taken by foreign-based artists.  What a sadness that so much artistic dollar now goes offshore ... and as a result the company no longer encourages talented young local singers with the prospect of a career in opera in Australia. 

These things aside for a moment, we were privileged to enjoy the glorious, full blooded operas with Lucia, Rigoletto and Aida, starting the new winter season.  These include the famous Sextet, the Quartet and Triumphal March, along with much, much more. 

There were many high points … but two stand-out performances were Jessica Pratt in the Lucia Mad Scene and Michael Fabiano’s finale of the same opera.  Both were unique demonstrations of the finest renditions of vocal drama – each a master class.  Both had done the same roles in New York recently, but not together.  Ms Pratt omits the act I cadenza which is sensible but adds a needless if very exciting high F in the scene in her brother’s studio.  The sextet and cabaletta with chorus are high class vocalism but the mad scene wins all the gongs in town.  Ms Pratt has everyone spell-bound with her flights, frights and heights.  The glass harmonica is replaced by the flute in a tight and accurate orchestra under Maestro Montanaro. 

A libretto I consulted omits the wonderful Wolf Crag Scene which was sung splendidly by Messrs Caoduro and Fabiano.  The libretto also left out the scene in act II between Lucia and Raimondo (played here very competently by Richard Anderson).  There are also some lines after the chorus endings later in the opera which were included in this very full and fine rendition.  I wish I could say the same of the production which was bland, grey and uninspiring.  There was no fountain!  Nor even an oily doily marking the spot. 

Leo Nucci had cancelled his much anticipated Rigoletto, replaced by a very fine Dalibor Jenis from Bratislava.  The new production had also been cancelled due to funds but was unlikely to match the standard of the wonderful old Moshinsky / Yeargan set in Mantua’s court portrait gallery in surely its last outing. 

American soprano Amber Wagner was a mighty Aida with one of the loudest voices I have ever heard (and big, beautiful vocalism is what we pay for).  The pace-setting new production uses tall LED panels in place of scenery and props.  Yet the production used images more like Iceland than Egypt.  We were regaled with huge fast moving clouds, bush fires and sea scapes, all rare in Egypt … and there seemed no impression of Egypt’s torrid heat and blue sky.  The towering structures projected were like Maurits Escher inventions, containing multiple arches.  Yet the arch was not invented until Greco-Roman times.  The head-dresses bore little resemblance to Egypt and some looked more like Meso-American eagle gods and Doctor Who Cybermen.  Some of the hieroglyphs were real (in the tomb scene) while others might have been a hieratic washing bill.  But no matter - the voices were all splendid, notably local Warwick Fyfe as Amonasro.  His magnificent “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente” is still humming in my ear.  Ms Gabouri and Mr Massi were excellent as Amneris and Radames.  Even the relatively small role of Ramfis was taken by top international bass Roberto Scandiuzzi, adding to the star-studded line-up. 

The technicolor panels were moved incessantly, often for no particular dramatic reason – up down and sideways, etc.  Yet at times the set change was dramatic and almost instantaneous.  Apparently we will see more operas using such technology, as with the Met Ring which uses narrow hinged LED panels to great effect.  It was surprising to me that there were still several short pauses in a darkened house between scenes in Aida.  The company chose to have only one intermission which in my view is an insult to composer, patrons, singers and bar staff alike.  On a practical note for an aging audience it also causes more congestion in the toilets in the single intermission.  Another reflection of the audience is that the matinee is so heavily booked these days. 

So what is to become of the national opera company now that it has so few resident artists and spends so much of the year performing musicals?  A successful formula used for over 50 years has been dumped and a repertory company has been turned into a ‘festival’ company.  The present management makes no apologies as this has been the aim for some years, only now coming to fruition.  Even costumes are now made in Thailand.  The MEAA cannot defend Australian artists, wig makers, etc.  My question is whether the ‘new formula’ is sustainable.  Already the opera on the harbour has had to start repeating popular works and the great majority of theatre performances are of ‘top of the pops’ or ‘ABC’ of opera (Aida, Boheme, Carmen).  When is Sydney going to hear Wagner?  Will we ever hear Trittico, Huguenots, Fidelio, Gioconda, Nabucco or Fanciulla again? 

I for one am grateful that we still have an opera company at all.  But it cannot claim to be a truly Australian opera company any longer and may not qualify for government subsidy which would be a disaster considering already high ticket prices up to $350 per seat. 

I will be keeping my subscription for the time being and remain a supporter if a critical one. 

Cheers to all opera lovers (and thanks for the patience of the normal people out there). 

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

08 May, 2018

Best Lucia in years at the Met. Jessica Pratt has it all!

Lucia di Lammermoor.  Metropolitan Opera Tues 11th and 15th April 2018
Dear Colleagues,
It is my view that these performances are a milestone in the performance history of this opera.  And I don't just say that because I am an Australian ... Ms Pratt was born in England and came to Australia aged 11.  In the past decade she has sung in many European opera houses before being engaged by The Met as second of three Lucias after Olga Peretyatko and before Pretty Yende.  Pratt has sung only rarely down-under but is finally engaged to sing this very role with the national company later this year.  I would advise everyone to try for a ticket as they will not be disappointed on the Met performances. 
There was a strong cast in a dark but effective production by Mary Zimmerman.  The production was up-dated to the 1920s which would have been fine but for two rather stupid and distracting ‘side shows’ starting with the entire sextet being a set-up for a wedding photograph, hooded box camera, old slide film, flash and all.  Furthermore, for the end of the mad scene a doctor arrived with black bag and hypodermic in the right deltoid … like the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Most unnecessary and from the box of: “when in doubt, add more” as my decorator uncle used to say.  
Popular Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo took all the difficult options as Edgardo and at times he was almost over the top.  His final scene in the graveyard was exemplary, ending the opera on a seriously exciting and tragically moving point.  I was told it was a semi-tone down … to which I replied: “So what?” 
It was a matter of 'if you have got it, flaunt it!'   Ms Pratt sang an unwritten and unexpected high F (youch!) at the end of the scene with her brother and the priest.  This was about the only thing I would be critical of but for the magnificent overall portrayal.  A colleague told me that Beverly Sills once did it.  Like the high E flat in Callas's Mexico City Aida, it is exciting and unique. 
The mad scene was a tour de force and Ms Pratt added quite a few of her own flourishes, all now tasteful and in keeping with the bel canto piece.  Her final cabaletta E flat was the longest and strongest E flat I have ever heard and it was simply extraordinary, especially when the rest of the aria was sung to perfection in a stylish manner worthy of any opera house.  All principals had voices which were large and beautiful.  It was a shame that Normanno played admirably by Gregory Schmidt did not hit his optional high note in the first scene with the woodsmen which would have set the standard for the entire performance. 
Enrico on the Wednesday was Luca Salsi with Mr Cavaletti on the Saturday, both singing at a very high level and taking the difficult options.  There were some rubati, ritenuto and other liberties which must have been with the conductor's permission (Maestro Abbado was back from being indisposed).  Raimondo was played more than adequately by bass Mr Kowaljow from the Ukraine. 
The applause from the Met audience was rapturous, almost ecstatic.  Like most operas these days the house was not full.  There were no bouquets or ticker-tape which would certainly have been the case if Ms Pratt had sung the whole season.  The comparison with the first soprano could not be more contrasted.  The first was adequate while the second, Ms Pratt was incomparable.  Brava Jessica Pratt who went on to sing I Puritani in Italy the following week.  We look forward to hearing her Lucia in June/July. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

26 March, 2018

La Traviata at the Sydney Opera House March 2018.

Nicole Car joined by world class colleagues in splendid outing of this Verdi classic. 
Dear Colleagues,
Rarely since the Sutherland days have we heard such dynamic vocalism as from these three magnificent principal artists and the massed talents of the national opera company and orchestra.  I was so impressed on opening night that I ventured back mid-season and was not disappointed.  Both nights were full houses apart from the balcony boxes which were almost empty. 
Mr Ji-Min Park as the younger Germont took all the hard options and they came off splendidly.  A famous American tenor once called this a tenor-killer role which few take on a second time such is its vocal and dramatic challenges. 
Ukranian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy sang and acted a dignified Papa Germont.  His voice is deeply resonant with extended breath control, almost like the late lamented Dmitry Hvorostovsky.  His big aria was splendid with some personal flourishes: Di Provenza il mar il suol with full cabaletta ending the act. He sings very long phrases on single breaths and acts the drama with sincerity. 
But top card goes to soprano Nicole Car who has ‘arrived’ with this portrayal of Violetta, one of the most difficult roles in the operatic canon.  She is required to sing coloratura in Act 1 then solid dramatic soprano for the remainder of the 4 acts.  It would be easy to cast the role using two singers but only rarely does a woman come along who can encompass this double challenge adequately.  But Ms Car does more than that as she becomes the character and sings the heart out of the lines written by the masterful Verdi at the peak of his powers. 
Kobbé describes as the opera’s “emotional touchstone” Violetta’s plea “Amami, Alfredo, amami quant'io t'amo” which Ms Car sang to its full richness and pathos. 
These three singers would have sounded very fine in a large opera house so in the confines of our small auditorium in Sydney the effect was absolutely extraordinary.  There were standing ovations on both occasions I attended this season and well deserved.  On the other hand, several magnificent moments receive polite clapping from an audience which perhaps did not know the quality and rarity of what they were hearing away from the better known numbers.  In the first five minutes of the opera comes the duet and chorus Libiamo sometimes called the drinking song.  There is often a whisper of familiarity from members of the audience at that point. 
For those into high notes Sempre libera had Ms Car taking the E flat option on both nights, initially nailing a high, sustained and excitingly unhurried ending but clipping the note only briefly on the Tuesday performance.  Even if it was transposed down slightly it was still creditable.  The tenor also sang his (also unwritten) high C or D flat early in Act 2 as a sustained, accurate and thrilling end to his cabaletta O mio remorso, O infamia.  Mr Bilyy also did some extraordinary things vocally, all tasteful and in keeping with the paternal part. 
The Moshinsky/Yeargan production was resurrected for the umpteenth time simply because it is so good.  Despite the small stage, or perhaps because of it, there is a busy crowd feeling to both first act party and the gambling scene. 
Maestro Licata conducted the orchestra with sympathetic tempi, fundamental to the joy of these unique operatic performances. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. (with some assistance). 

08 January, 2018

Merry Widow at Sydney Opera House ... or is it the West Wing?

The Merry Widow – second ‘opening’ night 2 Jan 2018. 
Dear Reader,
Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow is rightly a classic of the musical stage which requires a soprano of the greatest talents in both acting and voice.  Gladys Moncrieff, June Bronhill and Joan Sutherland were Australians who mastered the role of Hannah Glawari (called Sonia in some English productions).  Danielle de Niese also has what it takes but the microphone, which could have been used as subtle enhancement, was over amplified and unpleasantly unnatural.  Ms de Niese dances superbly and is an outstanding personality on stage.  Her partner is Alexander Lewis, star of opera and musical and son of popular Australia baritone Michael Lewis and mezzo-soprano Patricia Price.   He also sings and acts well as the distant and reticent lover Danilo.  Mr John Longmuir has a substantial tenor voice but he is hardly the dashing figure required of Camille de Rosillon.  Furthermore, the amplification distorted his extraordinary high range so we will never know what he really sounded like. 
Despite handsome sets and costumes, I could not recommend this production.  Our national ‘opera’ company has sunk to new depths, pushed along by a drive away from opera in favour of popular musicals for weeks on end.  They mix opera singers with stars of musical theatre, a very difficult task considering the different training and talents involved.  This immortal operetta, performed by opera singers in a relatively small theatre (1500 seats) with sub-titles, needs no amplification.  But it cannot be sung every night without the use of obvious, imperfect and distorting amplification.  It is a sad irony that in the first production using the new staging and orchestra pit acoustic improvements we are blasted with loud speakers, upsetting the fine balance needed in an opera theatre.  We go to the opera to hear natural voices.  The orchestra sounded the same as usual to me but was sometimes overshadowed by the amplified voices.  The Viennese tunes seemed unstoppable and Maestro Vanessa Scammell kept a traditional pace. 
Some may like the new Australian translation with its updated details, coarse and sexually explicit references.  On many occasions I noted corny and awkward turns of phrase which replaced the charming poetry of the traditional old English translations.  An exception might be the horsey song from Hanna Glawari’s youth which was certainly an improvement on the ‘original’.  Mr Fleming is obviously a gifted poet but it was as if he had done this enormous job in a hurry.  I do not know the original German or Hungarian but the spoken dialogue largely came across as unnatural and unfunny.  I recall one point at which lovers were supposedly ‘embalmed in sweet perfume’ … were they corpses?  Did the company avoid some copyright fees by using a new Australian translation?  Or did it cost more? 
There were a number of other changes to the work if I’m not mistaken.  Lehar’s overture was omitted (it was written after the opening and is often left out).  The Grisettes de Paris are normally led by a contralto ‘Madam’ called ZoZo but here the Widow herself danced with the Maxim girls.  Was this money saving again?  It did seem incongruous. 
Having seen ‘Hello Dolly’ recently in New York I know just how split-second timing, a professional Broadway cast, balanced amplification from orchestra, soloists and chorus can yield a tight and satisfying work.  I have never seen so many smiling faces as in the intermission in the Shubert Theater at Times Square.  I wish I could say the same about the Sydney audience in Lehar’s Merry Widow. 
Over many years during January this ‘opera’ company has produced three or four high quality grand operas, indirectly contributing to the Festival of Sydney.  This year there will be 30 performances of The Merry Widow, making a mockery of the new-found abilities of the opera hall’s mechanical equipment to rapidly change sets from one opera to another following six months of extensive renovations. 
Are there parallels with the current White House?  Decades of tradition have been thrown out in favour of an unproven change in direction.  The fundamental constitution (Mission Statement) of the organisation has been flouted until moves to change it to allow the ‘opera’ company to perform virtually anything.  Pantomimes?  Cabarets?  High masses?  Perhaps someone should write a book about it. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
PS – I was bowled over by magnificent performance of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea at Pinchgut Opera in November – twice the quality at half the price!  Nero’s court was replaced by tattooed Brooklyn thugs – ‘Render unto Caesar …’. 

07 January, 2018

Render unto Caesar .... Poppea at Wynyard in Sydney CBD

L’incoronazione di Poppea – Monteverdi (1642)
Pinchgut Opera – Sydney Recital Hall, Wynyard. 
Dear Colleagues,
This was yet another stylish and witty outing of an operatic rarity by this innovative and daring opera company.  Set in a world of tattooed Brooklyn thugs, big-boss Nero finally gets rid of his legal lady in favour of Rome’s popular paramour, Poppea.  In the process we meet her other admirers and rivals. 
The singers were all excellent while the orchestra was populated with ancient instruments and young musicians who knew how to use them.  It was cute to see a family first with Seneca played by excellent baritone David Greco while the first violin was his grinning brother Matthew Greco. 
The opera starts with a hopeless suitor of Poppea, waiting for her to appear at her window. 
The second half opens with a cocaine fuelled orgy, imperial blow job and all. 
The City Recital Hall is a very agreeable venue in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. 
For more details, get your own subscription … it will be far better value than the national opera company. 
Brief notes from Andrew Byrne ..

01 August, 2017

Thaïs by Massenet – Concert performance at the Sydney Town Hall.

Thaïs by Massenet – Concert performance at the Sydney Town Hall.  Saturday 22nd July 2017. 
The Wiki page on this work states that the title role “is notoriously difficult to sing and is reserved for only the most gifted of performers. Modern interpreters have included Carol Neblett, Anna Moffo, Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price, Renée Fleming, and Elizabeth Futral.”  Now that Renee Fleming has announced her retirement from the opera stage one wondered from the publicity whether Nicole Car might be the world’s new Thaïs.  On Saturday’s performance there is little chance of this, despite a creditable performance overall.  One wonders at her advisors, agent and the opera company management with a talented singer so early in her career.  Furthermore, to sing a rehearsal then two performances within just a few days is something Renee Fleming has probably never done. 
The Sydney audience has been deprived of a winter opera season for the first time in 60 years due to incompetence of management.  Despite long announced repairs to the opera stage no viable replacement venue or venues were organised early enough causing cancellation of the main season.  Instead we have a few piecemeal efforts each of which could as easily have been mounted by the ABC or the private sector.  I believe the entire opera company board should be sacked and an administrator appointed.  An orchestra without a season, chorus sent home, principal singers unemployed and the public denied mainstream opera in the city of the world’s most recognisable opera house! 
Back to the performance which had many fine aspects, most notably an enlarged opera orchestra filling the enormous stage of the Town Hall under the skilled baton of Maestro Guillaume Tourniaire.  Massenet was at his most innovative and creative in his score for Thaïs, notably in the ‘Meditation’ without which the opera would probably be almost unknown.  Jun Yi Ma, orchestra leader and first violin played exquisitely in what became a concerto with humming chorus in the full operatic version.  So, in his genius, Massenet wrote one of the most accessible and beautiful pieces within an opera which can only be performed by a soprano with the rare talents of American Sibyl Sanderson (d. 1903) for whom he also wrote Esclamonde (whose only studio recording is by Joan Sutherland, such are its vocal demands).   The score also evokes every sentiment from morning riverside noises to ecstatic rhythmics, even one moment which sounds to me like a busy office with a telephone ringing! 
On her performance on Saturday night, it would appear that Ms Nicole Car has been ill-advised to take on this unique and challenging role, despite a stunning recent recording of the ‘mirror’ aria.  In contrast to her recording, Ms Car curtailed the terminal high note, losing Massenet’s intention.  This was not the only clipped high note and furthermore, she appeared uncomfortable in two high passages in the final duet.  A musical colleague mentioned ‘goldfishing’, a term I was not familiar with, possibly in relation to two quite low notes.  Of course opera is much more than high notes and low notes, yet when they are required an audience deserves to hear them.  Ms Car has a regal presence on stage, a pleasing vocal delivery with poise, accuracy and beauty. 
Company regular Richard Anderson as Palemon started proceedings with his elegant basso voice and even delivery.  French Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, who is Nichole Car’s partner in real life and father of their young baby, sang the enormous role of Athanael with great aplomb.  He pushed the vocal limits without strain or inelegance, raising goose bumps in my case. 
Rich city-slicker and Thaïs’ current lover Nicias was performed by excellent company tenor Simon Kim.  As with the others, he sang accurately and with obvious knowledge of what he was singing.   Other supporting cast were also excellent along with male and female chorus situated behind the orchestra, next to the enormous pipe organ (which sadly was not used). 
The story of Massenet’s Egyptian masterpiece finds us in seamy and steamy Alexandria in the early Christian era where Athanael is trying to convince the object of his attention, Thaïs, to convert to a monastic life from her life of depravity as a follower of Venus, ensuring eternal life.  Only by the third act does he realise that he is physically attracted to Thaïs and by then she is dying.  He renounces God, Jesus and the scriptures in favour of the flesh … all too late, unfortunately.  But this IS opera! 
So I feel on the one hand that we were fortunate to hear this rare work but uncomfortable that our lead lady was misled to tackle such a role at this time. 
As a venue the Sydney Town Hall leaves much to be desired.  Little has changed since Nellie Melba sang here.  The single narrow entry (for security reasons I understand) led to a queue before the performance going most of the way down Druitt Street almost to Kent Street.  Disabled patrons were permitted to enter by the basement. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
Please let me know if you no longer wish to receive these opera notes: ‘personal only’ in subject line would suffice as I’ve no desire to spam anyone.  Have a great day. 
Thais Finale with Fleming and Hampson:
‘Mirror, mirror’ aria:

10 June, 2017

Further notes on the 50th Anniversary Metropolitan Opera Gala 7th May 2017.

There were 28 discrete pieces (taking Boheme Act I as three, Dmitry one, overture one, Aida Triumphal March as one, etc.  [see below for my notes on the night]
The seats cost either $1966 or $950 with standing room $50 on the day.   And there were sporadic single seats available on the internet Met site in the days leading up to the event.  The marketing therefore was near perfect as a fund raiser as well as a celebration for those prepared to take a financial hit (and most was tax-deductible for US residents). 
I note it is actually 51 years since the current opera house’s first performance (see Wiki page documenting first performance (La Fanciulla del West) for students was 11th April 1966 with formal opening with Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra on 16 September 1966 which is 50 years ago last September.  But hell, any time is a good time for a party, so party they/we did.  It may have been the finest line-up of opera talent in a very long time.
Conspicuous by their absence were: Jonas Kaufmann (long booked for Cavaradossi in Vienna); Villazon (no explanation); Florez (doctor’s certificate); Mr Furlanetto (?).
These are the names who were advertised to be singing on the night: Piotr Beczała, Ben Bliss, Stephanie Blythe, Javier Camarena, Diana Damrau, David Daniels, Joyce DiDonato, Plácido Domingo, Michael Fabiano, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Flórez, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Elīna Garanča, Susan Graham, Vittorio Grigolo, Mariusz Kwiecien, Isabel Leonard, Željko Lučić, Amanda Majeski (??), Angela Meade, James Morris, Anna Netrebko, Kristine Opolais, Eric Owens, René Pape, Matthew Polenzani, Rolando Villazón, Michael Volle, Pretty Yende and Sonya Yoncheva.  But we need to add the surprise of the night: Dmitry Hvorotovsky. 
Despite high ticket prices and few 'complimentary' seats (eg. Richard Bonynge and a few other first season participants) this should have been one of the most opera-savvy audiences imaginable.  Nevertheless, inexplicably there was still premature applause in the middle of Lady Macbeth’s first act scena with Anna Netrebko as well as in La Traviata Act I finale with Ms Damrau (and Mr Polenzani off-stage – who BTW omitted the high option in his one-liners). 
Although there were no obvious cameras in the hall to my surprise the Met released the clips below on YouTube a few days after the event.  These, I would estimate, comprise no more than 25% of the concert for all to enjoy.  None was the full item and some ended abruptly (such as 'Nemico della patria').  It is a mystery to me why the concert was not filmed on HD video for future use, not to mention for historical purposes.  This was like 30 singing lessons.  I have since heard from an insider that a documentary was made about the entire process leading up to this gigantic concert.  I was keen to know who got the main dressing-room(s)! 

Comments by Andrew Byrne, Sydney drug doctor. 

Below are some links I found on searching YouTube:
Si, mi chiamano Mimi (Sonya Yoncheva):
O soave fanciulla (Calleja; Yoncheva):
Quando le sere al placido (Piotr Beczala):
Cortigiani vil razza dannata (Hvorostovsky):
Qual voluttà trascorrere (Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, Günther Groissböck)
Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix (Elīna Garanča):
Bel raggio lusinghier (Joyce DiDonato):
Aida triumphal march (Gala Finale with Latonia Moore; Dolores Zajick and many more):
Met Gala curtain calls (one by one then grand finale with conductors and tutti:
Nemico della patria.   (just audio, no video from NPR)

13 May, 2017

Andrew Byrne's take on Met Gala - "and no-one's anybody!"

Sensational Met Opera 50 Year Anniversary concert.  6pm Sunday 7th May 2017
Dear Readers, 
There was electricity in the air before this night of nights – some of the singers were still in the foyers before the concert, mingling with patrons, donors and invited guests.  There was a red carpet and photographers.  The program was secret but 33 of the Met’s named singers would be giving their own, along with the chorus, orchestra and three conductors for the home crowd in Manhattan.  There were lots of tuxedoes and women’s fashions were very much on show. 
Having announced her retirement from the opera stage, Renee Fleming would have to be the sentimental favourite while old-timers’ prizes went to James Morris and Placido Domingo.  Morris sang the Grand Inquisitor as well as Ramfis in the Triumphal March.  There was no need for any allowances for age as both men held their own with others half their age.  I wondered that Charles Anthony was not there.  
The carefully chosen operatic excerpts were interspersed with brief interviews and old newsreels related to the Lincoln Center.  In B&W footage we saw President Eisenhower turn the first sod for construction; Leonard Bernstein conducted an open-air ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus on the building site; we heard a recent interview with 90 year old Leontyne Price whose regal photograph as Cleopatra’s adorns Met programs during May.  We learned how an accidental paint spill on the foyer's plans indirectly caused the design for the unique ‘galaxy’ light fittings, contrary to the wishes of Rudolf Bing and management who had wanted traditional chandeliers.  In another clip Mr Chagall asked for his murals to be lowered (!).  Too late!! 
The stage setting for each item was a re-creation using projections onto moving curtains, scrims and giant flats sliding in from the wings.  The manner by which this was done was like rapid painting with an invisible brush causing columns, walls, arches, wall-paper, etc to appear before our eyes - each time to finally reveal a familiar Met scena.  Most impressive for me was the classic Act I Boheme attic garret, doors, balcony, chimneys, roofs of Paris, etc, all a projected illusion apart from a small raised platform, student table and two chairs from which Ms Yoncheva and Mr Calleja performed.  It was trompe l’oeil after a fashion.  Some settings even got their own applause such as for Tosca (interiors of Palazzo Farnese), Aida (Nile colossi, etc) and Boris Godunov (gilt arched chambers).  There were representations of many Met production scenes for the evening, put together brilliantly by Julian Crouch.  Costumes were either original from the production or tasteful gowns, etc. 
In the middle of the second half there was a projected bio of James Levine from his student years right through his very long association with The Metropolitan Opera.  Then the spotlights moved to the podium where Maestro himself appeared in his chair, waving to an adoring crowd.  “Jimmy” then conducted the remainder of the concert. 
I mention the evening’s wonderful selections in no particular order … each item could have been a perfect music lesson.  Inevitably there were some crowd-pleasers: Un bel di (Anna Netrebko); E lucevan le stelle (Vittorio Grigolo); Vissi d'arte (Kristine Opelais); Sempre libera (Diana Damrau); Che gelida manina, Mi chiamano Mimi, O suave fanciulla, (Joseph Calleja, Sonya Yoncheva). 
Mozart: Papagano's aria (Michael Volle); Porgi amor (Renee Fleming); Count's Aria Nozze di Figaro (Volle);
And from left field: Overture from West Side Story (started proceedings); Chorus from Antony and Cleopatra (Samuel Barber’s opera was commissioned to open the Met); Bess, you is my woman now (Eric Owens, Pretty Yende); The Tempest (by Ades) love scene (Isobel Leonard, Ben Bliss with Dwayne Croft); Julius Caesar 'Sempre piangero' (David Daniels, Stephanie Blythe). 
For the serious consumer: Nemico della patria (Domingo – the French election result had just been announced); Iago's credo (Zeljko Lucic); Leve-toi soleil (Grigolo standing in for Florez); Mon coeur s'ouvre (Elena Garanca as Dalila); Guests' Entrance, Tannhauser (with trumpets on stage); Quando le sere al placido (Piotr Beczala); Don Carlo: Grand Inquisitor's scene with Phillip V (Groissbock / Morris).  
For the connoisseur: Boris's Mad Scene (Rene Pape); Troyens duet (Susan Graham, Matthew Polenzani); Thais duet with Fleming and Domingo; Charlotte’s aria from Werther (DiDonato).  
For the Guinness record book: Bel raggio lusinghier (Joyce DiDonato); Ah mes amis (Javier Camarena) with 9 high C’s!  All pitch perfect, alternating staccato and sustained – and all with ease and a Mexican smile!!  Lady Macbeth’s scene, Act I (Netrebko in amazing form). 
Just for fun: Don Pasquale duet (Pretty Yende, Mariusz Kwiecien); Triumphal March, Aida with full chorus (but no final 'Mexican' E flat as we heard on Sydney Harbour last year with the same wonderful soprano, Latonia Moore). 
About 7pm to our great surprise Mr Gelb announced that ‘a very brave Dimitry Hvorostovsky’ would sing Cortigiani vil razza – which he did, brilliantly.  The popular baritone received a standing ovation even before he opened his mouth – still recovering after brain surgery.  He seemed delighted with the reception, even shedding a tear as did many in the audience I suspect.  I noted many Russian accents in the foyers during the single intermission. 
Just after the Thais excerpt the orchestra started playing a violin obligato which I thought momentarily to be the Meditation.  It was actually the final scene of I Lombardi in which the violin features as a solo instrument just as the ‘cello does in I Masnadieri.  It is hard to know if Verdi was simply showing off his orchestral skills or showcasing a particular instrumentalist, or both.  Yet in this scene the melding of the strings, vocal and dramatic lines indeed shows his unique genius and was highly appropriate to show it off again.  Like numerous items, it heralds the newly announced season for 2017/8.  Here we heard Michael Fabiano, Angela Mead and Gunther Groissbock sing the trio.  The fiddle was played by David Chan with great virtuosity, showing off the most difficult manoeuvres of that instrument.  I was sorry Mr Fabiano did not sing La mia letizia infondere from Act I … this was one of Pavarotti’s favourite show pieces.  I heard Luciano Pavarotti, Lauren Flanagan and Samuel Ramey in this scene on this stage many years ago, reminding me that I have been attending this house for half of its life (since 1992). 
The quality of the singing goes without saying.  Each singer put their heart and soul into each piece and adrenalin levels were high, despite most performing familiar pieces.  Just as people were starting to seriously look at their watches near 11pm we had the selection from Aida and it was all over, barring the huge curtain calls which were also very emotional.  I pinched myself yet again.  What can one say?!  “Thank you”, say I. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

Highlights from the Met in New York and early cherry blossoms!

Opera notes from New York – April/May 2017
A visit to the New York Met Opera is always a great pleasure as the season winds down until mid-May when the ballet season begins.  Pre-booking seats enabled us to see the wonderful Sonja Frisell Aida, Rigoletto set in a casino, Flying Dutchman, Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni and Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. 
How to pick a favourite with so many stars, young and old in each of these high quality productions at the Met? 
The sentimental favourite must be Renee Fleming who is doing her last Marschallin (and possibly her last opera) in a new Rosenkavalier production by Robert Carsen, sets by Paul Steinberg, updated to 1911 Vienna.  This was one of the most profound and enjoyable operas I have attended … and it was the first time the opera really ‘clicked’ for me.  It is an amusing epic romance from teenage flirtations to deviant adult mores and then painful but necessary separations to allow new ‘normal’ liaisons.  There were elegant conventions broken as well as avuncular buffoonery.  Matthew Polenzani sang the Italian tenor to a tee (as Pavarotti did 45 years ago in the previous production’s premiere).  Elena Garanca not only sings brilliantly but plays her gender-bender role with boyish charm as well as feigned feminine awkwardness.  Sofie is played by Erin Morley with great aplomb.  Baron Ochs was played by Günther Groissböck and the opera conducted by Sebastian Weigle. 
Anna Netrebko is Tatiana to Peter Mattei’s Eugene Onegin.  Dmitry Hvorotovsky is still getting over brain surgery.  Alexie Dolgov sang a most satisfactory Lensky. 
Don Giovanni had a dream cast headed by Mariusz Kwecien and Erwin Schott, conducted by Placido Domingo.  Angela Mead sang Donna Anna who has some amazing vocal fireworks towards the end.  Matthew Polenzani was a great Don Ottavio, lily-livered though he is in the story.  Both Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro were beautifully sung. 
A magnificent Flying Dutchman is conducted by the new Met musical director French Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin who seems extremely popular with audience and performers alike.  Aptly named Ms Amber Wagner sang Senta and is the dramatic soprano to watch – with a major presence and penetrating voice and crystal (not quite the right word) top notes.  Franz-Josef Selig was a fine Daland and Michael Volle sang the title role, much of it standing on mid-air ship's gantry.  Ben Bliss was an excellent steersman.  AJ Glueckert was Erik, equally good.  A fair review would take pages considering all the detail of this giant production, evocative of craggy coastlines and misty outlines in snow.  Most effective perhaps was the Ducthman’s crew’s awakening near the end.  Eerie and spooky souls like ghosts in vast contrast to the raucous celebration of the Norse townsfolk on the docks. 
Joseph Calleja as the Duke of Mantua in the 'casino' Rigoletto was in extremely good vocal and dramatic form.  Mr Lucic as jester was great 'in parts' while Miss Peretyatko’s voice might be a bit too light for Gilda.  This up-dated, fluorescent Rigoletto uses every trick imaginable in the gamblers' cabaret paradise including Playboy Bunny Girls, wheel-of-fortune, roulette, lap dancers, mobile cocktail bar, cards, poker machines and … just when you thought you had seen everything, some rehearsed dandies solemnly parade in an ornate Egyptian sarcophagus which suddenly reveals a female stripper, very much alive!   The intruders to the first act party, Count Monterone and side-kicks, were here turbaned Arabs, very annoyed about gambling and drinking going on next door to their harem (plus having the daughter raced off by the sleazy casino owner).  They got their comeuppance in the next act by being shot at point-blank range by in-house security, only a slight deviation from the original. 
Alfano was a very serious composer who wrote in several very different styles.  His ending of Turandot is well known and now his Cyrano de Bergerac is being performed after Domingo first sang it at the Met 12 years ago.   To my mind it is one of the great vocal and dramatic feats for the tenor to compare with Siegfried or Siegmund.  And Roberto Alagna does a stentorian job of this declamatory and dramatic work opposite Roxanne of Jennifer Rowley.  The Met production is a major undertaking, starting in a staged theatre and moving to a balcony street scene followed by a battle field, then a monastery.  Bravo the wizardry of the Met stage hands. 
So who was the star of the month? Well, I have to say I derived vast pleasure from the wonderful Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan who excelled in his three roles: Sparafucile, Gremin and Commendatore.  I have never heard such a long, low bass note as the Mantuan (Burgundian) hired gun repeating his own name down the stave: ‘Sparafucile!’ as Rigoletto sings ‘Va, va, va, va’.  And Gremin’s aria was exceedingly moving and dignified while Onegin looks on in horror.  Don Giovanni’s first victim’s father also sings from the dead, using two voices from the one larynx.  Fantastic feats and Met would be wise to sign up this man for life (and maybe they have). 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
More about Hello Dolly with Bette Midler and 50 year Met concert later. 

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 ..