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21 October, 2004

Le Comte Ory. Another auspicious night for the local opera troupe

Canterbury Opera, Christchurch, New Zealand

Thurs 21 Oct 2004

Count OryBernard Hull
Countess AdeleEmma Sloman
Isolier, Count Ory's PageMajka Kaiser
Raimbaud, Ory's 'friend'Richard Grundy
TutorValeriy Maksymov
Ragonde, Countess's companionMaree Hawtin-Morrow
AliceHelen Charlton
A knightJack Bourke
c.Michael Joel
d.David McPhail

Dear Colleagues,

This was another auspicious night for the local opera troupe.

It would be unfair to compare with the great opera houses of the world, but quality needs to be sought and acknowledged wherever art appears. And the quality was high. No flat singing, no embarrassing gaffs, no scenery collapses and an orchestra of a good standard and size.

The modern theatre has charm and includes a 'floating' balcony. It forms part of the Town Hall complex near the Avon 'River' whose botanic banks are currently displaying the wonders of spring including cherry blossoms, horse chestnuts, tulips, etc. The subtitles were by way of TV screens and only gave about one line in ten of the English text. The translation by Brian Castles-Onion was clever and racy but at times laboured by plosives ("Good enough, good enough" repeated over is not easy for singer to instil beauty musically).

I am not sure why proceedings were moved from 11 century crusader times to the 1700's. There were no crusades in the latter period, apart from the soi-disant '4th crusade' to the Americas. Costumes were probably more difficult for the change but all were colourful and tasteful. The settings were projected Rococo scenes on a huge white circle backdrop on an otherwise plain stage. It worked for me. The castle drinking scene with Ory and his 'nuns on the run' was brilliantly staged. Slapstick allegory with the last supper would only have offended the most orthodox in the audience.

I had the privilege of seeing the opera at Glyndebourne in the 1990s and enjoyed the chance to see it again. Despite many memorable musical moments, Ory lacks an 'immortal' aria. The overture is inauspicious and, rather than capitalising on his genius for the catchy tune and orchestral innovation, Rossini may have been experimenting with tempi and other more subtle effects in this, his second last opera before the long composing 'silence'. Some Ory melodies are almost trite yet some features were quite novel and worthy of his successors. Most come from his 'Viaggio a Reims' written for the coronation of the last French Bourbon King and not reproduced on the usual opera 'circuit'. The act one finale has a wonderful descending orchestral ornamental device re-used by Strauss almost exactly at the end of the Fledermaus overture. I also noted some repeated cadences which I have only heard elsewhere in Verdi's operas, written years later. Another duet/concerted piece is similar to the 'Tous les trios reunis' in Figlia del Regimento of Donizetti.

Bernard Hull was the star of the piece as Count Ory. He is from Adelaide according to the programme notes and did a Hoffmann here in the past. He has a highly placed tenor voice suited the to this very difficult role. Like Rockwell Blake, he can sing high, long and loud . and then do it all again, and again, for a whole evening. The voice can sound a little harsh at times but he uses carefully placed diminuendos to soften and sweeten the effect. He also has a confident stage presence, communicating much with his eyes and gestures. Hull also still possesses youthful good looks.

Emma Sloman as the Countess also had some taxing highly placed singing. She managed but may have tired towards the end. Her wig was extraordinary, as was Ory's. Once again, she did coloratura alone, in duet and with chorus, each being exciting and in-character.

As Ory's Page, Majka Kaiser was excellent. The bedroom scene was hilarious with the three in bed singing, acting and cavorting at the one time.

The others all sang well and the continuo was in fine form. The orchestra under Michael Joel played creditably.

All in all an uplifting and positive experience for a tourist from Sydney. And so reassuring to see a small city like Christchurch (pop 400,000) having an active and high quality opera company.

comments by Andrew Byrne ..

16 July, 2004

Baroque Masterworks at Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House. Friday 16th July 2004.

Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (Monteverdi)
Dido and Aeneas (Purcell)

Conductor Richard Gill
Director Patrick Nolan
Design Gabriela Tylesova
Main singers: Angus Wood, Ali McGregor, Han Lim, Deborah Humble, Kanen Breen, Lisa Harper-Brown.

Billed as “Baroque Masterworks”, this double bill was at the same time intriguing, charming, educational and yet fraudulent. An "opera" which was no opera at all, and is shorter than the intermission at 17 minutes is hardly a worthy opening partner to the classic early English work Dido & Aeneas.

The first half, actually a short ‘madrigal’, was introduced by the characters walking onto stage from the auditorium with narrator Angus Wood taking the main role confidently. The two title characters sing in turn of their emotions as the (ludicrous) story unfolds. All the while, two dancers who represent the combatants/lovers climb down from the enormous surreal painted backdrop on which they are cleverly concealed. They then act out the story of infidel love, disguise, fight, baptism, inopportune death and redemption.

The choreography was stunningly devised by Lucy Guerin and performed by Delia Silvan and Byron Perry. It was easily the most memorable thing of the evening for me. The enigmatic style used staccato limb and body movements, rolls and even a brief piece which might have been from the Kama Sutra.

After the early interval, Purcell’s gift was given in a charming, eclectic and quirky production. The ‘Greek’ chorus with white mop hairdo’s was cleverly used, right down to their undergarments when encouraged by the green ‘froggy’ Sorcerer played ably by Kanen Breen.
I was surprised at the ludicrous decision to have Dido sung by possibly the country's best contralto/deep mezzo ... in a part which had few if any low chest register notes to sing! Like the others, she sang extremely well and acted in keeping with the story. Lisa Harper-Brown is monumental in both stature and voice, moving elegantly on stage, playing the Punic sister. Wood was the star of both works to my view.

Conductor Gill played one of two harpsichords which were surrounded by a very small but specialised baroque orchestra. In both halves we were asked for silence while they tuned up. On such a short evening, I could not see why they did not tune up before we all entered.

These fossil gems of operatic archæology might best have been given together, the Monteverdi making an apt ‘curtain-raiser’. Then, for the second half, take your pick from the Trittico operas, Cav, Pag or even Trial by Jury, which was probably the next successful English opera after Dido. Only then could people feel that they had received value for their $200 which many had paid for this Friday night gala.

condemnments by Andrew Byrne ..

04 April, 2004

La Gioconda - Ponchielli. Carnegie Hall, New York. Tues 20th April 2004

Gioconda: Aprile Millo
Enzo Grimaldo: Marcello Giordani
Laura: Mitena Kitic
Barnaba: Anooshah Golesorkhi
La Cieca: Sheila Nadler
Alvise: Luiz-Ottavia Faria
Opera Orchestra of New York, c. Eve Queller.
Dallas Symphony Orchestra Chorus

Dear Colleagues,

This was an ideal opportunity to hear top artists in an opera so rarely given in the theatre that many opera-goers have never seen it. The performers in this concert performance were allowed interactions, gestures, entrances, exits and a few props for the ‘semi-staged’ action, directed by Ira Siff. Aprile Millo put her ‘stamp’ on the title rôle, both vocally and dramatically. Some of the actions seemed redundant, generally it was beneficial to have some movement, most notably Ms Millo’s terminal suicidal collapse. Somewhat awkward however was her subsequent uprighting for the already raucous applause.

I confess to reading a dozen internet reviews prior to writing this. Several were severely critical of the two flat high notes (one each from Millo and Nadler) and one omitted high C of Millo (in the final trio). I have no problem with such single deficiencies in otherwise excellent performances which were in evidence all round in this opera.

For each of the 3 Opera Orchestra of New York performances each year patrons are handed not only a program but also a bilingual libretto. This can be followed in a partially lit auditorium. Apart from rather cramped seating, the renovated venue is a large, acoustically friendly 4 tiered hall, just over 100 years old on 57th St and 7th Ave near Broadway and Central Park.

The audience was almost as interesting as the cast, including Renata Scotto, Barbara Cook, Harolyn Blackwell, Anna Moffo, Licia Albanese, Steven Blier, Rudy Giuliani, Placido Domingo, Daniel Sumegi and Victoria Livengood.

Anooshah Golesorkhi set the scene with his plotting song. A very capable baritone, originally from Iran, sings and acts this particular devil with flair and verve.

La Cieca was well sung and performed by Sheila Nadler. Her eyes seemed closed for most of the opera and she was led around by others, true to the semi-staged performance. Her fear, surprise and anguish were well portrayed in the vocal line and body language.

The stars of the night were undoubtedly Marcello Giordano, who New Yorkers cannot get enough of, and Aprile Millo who is also very popular here. Mr Giordani was getting over a cold and we were asked to make allowances. No signs of it showed when he opened his mouth, producing the most beautiful, natural, high tenor sounds from a native Italian (or Sicilian) speaker. His ‘Cielo e mar’ received a tremendous ovation which seemed to last nearly 3 minutes.
Millo is a phenomenon. Rather than a tight, long glittering dress, she might have looked better with a little additional fabric, suitably sewn. Appearances aside, Millo’s singing was stunning as she put care, thought, breath and voice into every phrase of her long part as the rejected ballad-singer of the opera.

The story is worthy of a Jerry Springer program with a two-timing wife (Laura, sung beautifully by Milena Kitic) of influential husband (Alvise as mellow-voiced Luiz-Ottavio Faria) and Gioconda smiling on, pretending that her elderly, blind mother is her main concern. Everyone is either in love with the tenor or jealous of him (this IS opera). And Jerry is played by Barnaba, master of ceremonies, with his dragoons in case anyone gets violent. Considering there is a near-poisoning, switched bottles, feigned death, resuscitation, double suicide (poisoning et stabbing), and an hourly jig as required of a work of this girth, we would need at least two episodes in my view. [end of parody!]

Ms Queller conducted in her usual style (or some might uncharitably say, with a lack of it). And most of her tempi were traditional, complimenting the opera perfectly well. She ‘saved’ one entrance for Ms Millo (there being no prompter and nobody was reading the music) with some words to catch up a lost line. Queller also indicated an accelerando in the second theme of the ‘dance of the hours’ which resulted in some of the orchestra going to almost doppio tempo in an unseemly display which, fortunately, was also quickly rescued. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra Chorus of nearly 100 members filled the hall with glorious sounds as per Ponchielli’s master-score. A great night out in the Big Apple!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

22 January, 2004

Joan Sutherland’s 50th wedding anniversary - any excuse for a party!

Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House

22 Jan 2004

Dear Colleagues,

We were privileged to share the Bonynge / Sutherland Golden Wedding anniversary in a concert by Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House, Thursday 22nd January 2004. The evening consisted of duets, trios and quartets from a variety of operas and operettas (and far too many of the latter for my liking, being 9 out of 20 items). There were no solos for some unstated reason. Would it have been bad luck and spelled divorce?

The program more than made up for the light Austro-Hungarian pieces by including wonderful selections from La Giaconda, Linda di Chamounix, Crispino e la Comare, I Lombardi, Attila, Lakmé, Semiramide, Martha and La Sonnambula. We heard excellent singing from Yvonne Kenny, David Hobson, Cheryl Barker, Peter Coleman-Wright, Joanna Cole, Deborah Riedel, Amelia Farrugia, Deborah Humble, John Pringle, Anson Austin, Jennifer McGregor and others who performed with the Opera and Ballet Orchestra under Mæstro Richard Bonynge.

Joan Sutherland was in the audience and made a short thank-you speech on stage at the end. She was presented with an award by the postal service who are honouring her with personalised postage stamps as an ‘Australian legend’. The presentation ceremony was more than made up for by a short video clip in which Sutherland sang about 15 successive E flats in various roles from the 50s to the 80s. Then we had her final ‘Home sweet home’ footage, followed by indoors ticker-tape and streamers for a ?final time.

Highlights for me were the pieces from I Lombardi, Gioconda and Semiramide (Serbami ognor). Verdi’s early crusades opera has an inspired section taking the form of a violin concerto, then becoming a vocal trio of great moment and drama. The Gioconda "Ecco la barca" trio is also a rare and fine piece of vocal theatre. Deborah Humble as Arsace to Joanna Cole’s Semiramide showed a new side to her voice as a true contralto which we hear so rarely these days. Each selection was performed to perfection. David Hobson was in excellent voice, especially in the Bellini, and one wonders why he is not a more regular member of the company. Two other strong tenors showing great promise are Mr Ding Yi and Mr Jaiwoo Kim. Suffice it to say that all of the others sang very well and the orchestra played brilliantly (they came on stage for their acclaim). There was no chorus, no Mozart, no Wagner and no Puccini - yet a surfeit of Kalman, Lehar and Leo Fall. Maybe that was just what the Diva ‘demanded’ for her anniversary!

comments by Andrew Byrne ..