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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).

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:

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 ..

Andrew’s opera:
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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?

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

Equally the last 10 minutes of the opera are splendid … as our heroes the lovers face the guillotine. 
Or in B&W TV from Tokyo in 1961:

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 ..

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 ..

01 May, 2018

Opera scene in April 2018 in Manhattan:

New York offered a real panoply of opera this April: Cosi fan Tutte, Lucia di Lammermoor, Turandot, Romeo and Juliette, Luisa Miller, Cendrillon and Tosca at the Met along with Bernstein’s Candide at Carnegie Hall.  Ms Netrebko’s Tosca was a high point and the only time we saw the Met actually sold out.  Her very fine tenor husband Yusif Eyvazov played Cavaradossi since Marcelo Alvarez had pulled out.  We also heard Exteminating Angel, Lucia and Luisa Miller on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts while we were in the city. 

Our Cosi fan tutte matinee was spoiled by jet-lag so we were fortunate to get ‘rush’ seats a couple of weeks later, getting much more out of the brilliant up-dating to 1960s Coney Island fun fair and adjacent ‘Skyline Motel’ in Brooklyn.  The sometimes problematic story line became slightly MORE believable - the girls not recognising their own lovers … some of the audience might have been in the same boat, such was the transformation of handsome uniformed naval officers into boyish Brooklyn denim dandies.  Broadway star Kelli O’Hara played the scheming maid Despina while accomplished baritone Christopher Maltman played Don Alfonso, patron to the four lovers.  
The final season performance of Turandot may well spell the end of the wonderful grand production set in the forbidden city of Beijing.  Many of the old productions have been replaced into the ‘close-up’ world of HD telecasts, Aida and La Boheme remaining from the previous Met dynasties.  Martina Serafin was stunning at Turadot but Marcelo Alvarez has been having vocal problems after losing some weight, or so we were told, and his Calaf was under-par.  Liu was Hei-Kyung Hong a stalwart of the Met for decades and she did not disappoint with a most touching legato display of vocal and dramatic skills. 

We attended the first (ever) performance of Massenet’s Cendrillon (Cinderella) at the Met.  It had three of the world’s top mezzo-sopranos, Alice Coote, Joyce deDonato and Stephanie Blythe in an absolutely brilliant production … yet the opera fell flat for me just as Don Quichotte and Thais had recently.  Perhaps I am not a Massenet person.  I just can’t imagine why he chose to put neither a baritone nor a tenor into a serious opera.  Others have substituted a male for Prince Charming since, but not at The Met where ‘come scritto’ is the rule.  The hen-pecked father was excellent French bass Laurent Nouri.  He also plays old Capulet in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette. 
Cendrillon dragged on for 4 long acts, each a dream of the following one.  All I could think of was Rossini’s Cenerentola which had more glorious melodic invention in its overture than Massenet’s entire piece.  A singer friend told me afterwards that it is more a ballet-person’s opera than a singer’s.  Are there any well known arias from Cendrillon? 

A New York Times critique of Placido Domingo aged about 80 in Luisa Miller is worth reading on its own .  This brilliant piece of writing likens Domingo’s feat to Federer winning a grand slam ten years hence.  As well as performing the father in Luisa Miller, Domingo was also conducting Romeo and Juliette!  A phenomenon of operatic history.  We enjoyed the performance greatly having first heard Aprile Millo in Rome as Luisa Miller with Alberto Cupido playing the tenor role about 25 years ago ( ) 
A fraction of balance was added to our grand opera schedule was Bernstein’s Candide at Carnegie Hall where Erin Morley was a magnificent Gunegonde … she will sing Woodbird next year in the Ring I believe.  Her Glitter and Be Gay was like the Queen of the Night on steroids.  It was an unexpected privilege by chance to meet sopranos Pretty Yende and Camilla Nyland (quite separately) each in relaxed circumstances far from their costumes, roles, critics, agents, etc in the Met foyers.  Only in New York.  

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 …’.