Andrew's Opera was previously published at

25 October, 2006

Oops, Gilda's D flat ... and, amateurs in major roles in Sydney Rigoletto!

Sydney Opera House

Friday 1st September 2006

Dear Colleagues,

The high note sung by Natalie Jones at the end of the quartet was an unwritten (at least in my Boosey & Hawkes score) D flat, not an E flat as I quoted in my earlier posting. So much for relying on memory. My apologies.

More important was that this was NOT the last Rigoletto. The company had replaced a previously scheduled Pirates of Penzance with David Hobson on Tuesday with a special performance of Rigoletto in which three principals would be replaced by 'talent-time' amateurs in the last act.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has run a series of several Sunday night television programs documenting a national talent search beginning in 2005. Some candidates were labourers, tradesmen, teachers, mothers, etc. Few had had much if any formal vocal training. Based on a similar exercise in the UK, the winner was meant to get to sing one role with the company. However, for reasons of 'fairness', they decided to allow the best three to each take part in part or all of the opera.

I was not at the performance, but several others I have spoken to said that it had much to commend it. Those in the know said that the winner, a young bass David Parkin who sang Sparafucile, should have a career in opera if he chooses to take that giant leap. I heard him on the television last weekend and he sounded and acted in a way to be noticed. He is an IT man with a legal firm. Good luck! Or as they say in the trade, 'break a leg!'

Regards, Andrew Byrne ..

21 October, 2006

Joan Sutherland's 80th birthday and Australian opera company turns 50

Opera Australia 50th birthday concert. Sydney Opera House

Wed 11th October 2006

Dear Colleagues,

This concert was heavily billed and at $400 for the best seats, an impressive cast and the presence of Joan Sutherland, to there were high expectations. But amongst some high quality opera singing there were also disappointments. In some respects, the opera company seems to lack a clear direction, both artistically and regarding human resources. On the night, several simple flaws could have been easily remedied yet other more fundamental defects may require major remedial work. Why, for instance, did Peter Coleman-Wright, an excellent baritone, sing an aria often sung by basses? He was not able to shine on the lowest notes, losing the essence of the raw emotion Beethoven’s score demands in Fidelio.

Equally, why was superlative Wagnerian tenor Glenn Winslade asked to sing a coloratura aria from Idomeneo? After a sub-optimal performance in Clemenza di Tito recently, he seemed out of his fach again. One wonders if there is anyone in the company who actually reads the many professional reviews that are written, letters sent and comments made? One did not need any training to hear the vocal difficulties.

We were told that the company was founded on Mozart who has been a mainstay since the original 4 Köchel operas in 1956. The operas of Donizetti and Bellini catapulted our guest of honour to stardom and yet neither of these ‘greats’ was sung all evening.

The two most popular requests from Australian audiences, we are told, are Pearlfishers and David Hobson. Again, neither was to be heard, despite the latter singing G&S with the company currently. Hobson had excellent notices as Candide in Perth recently as well as high-rating national TV appearances. No sensible opera management could afford to ignore such a popular artist in his prime, just as with latter-day icons Donald Smith, Joan Carden and Joan Sutherland who filled theatres for decades.

While Britten is not my personal favourite, the two excerpts “Old Joe has gone fishin’” and the finale from Midsummer Night’s Dream were certainly well received by those who like that sort of thing. The double Shakespearian end to the night was apposite, Puck and Falstaff.

We heard Elizabeth Connell in the Liebestod, Lisa Gasteen in ‘Dich, teure Halle’ from Tannäuser, John Wegner in ‘Scintille diamant’ from Hoffmann, Emma Matthews in Olympia’s song, Yvonne Kenny in Vilja, Michael Lewis in a declamation from Australian opera Madeline Lee. All were creditable, while Matthews and Wegner gave sensational performances. ‘Va pensiero’ was well rendered by an experienced, talented and very hard-working chorus.

Two other excepts from the popular repertory kept the crowds happy, both featuring the company’s latest ‘hot property’, tenor Rosario La Spina. From Act IV of Rigoletto we heard a gushing ‘La Donna è mobile’ followed by the quartet. Act II finale of La Bohème was also splendid, even if the tenor only has a few big notes at the end after Musetta has taken stage. I find it odd that Pamela Helen Stephen (Mrs Hickox) would be partaking in the Opera Australia birthday function when, until this week, as an excellent Sesto in Julius Caesar, she had never sung with the company. ‘Vissi d’arte’ with Cheryl Barker was dropped without any mention of why.

We had been promised a “surprise” which came after the Falstaff ‘Tutto nel mondo’ in the form of a blackout, followed by a hugely amplified (and rather distorted) second verse of “Ah non giunge” from La Sonnambula sung by a very young Joan Sutherland. This was followed by strains of the entire night’s company singing ‘happy birthday’ to ticker-tape. Joan Sutherland turns 80 next month. She looked radiant and appreciative when the doting audience gave her a standing ovation.

As an encore we were presented with the finale from Midsummer Night’s Dream with counter-tenor Graham Pushee and children’s chorus, concluded by compare Anthony Warlow.

While it is novel to hear the full Opera and Ballet Orchestra on the stage rather then in the pit, it is a shame that Mr Hickox did not tone down the volume for the sake of the singers, some of whom had to struggle to be heard, and in some cases producing a forced sound as in the Rosenkavalier trio. The War and Peace overture seemed lacklustre and was an odd choice to get people into the mood for a Joan Sutherland birthday gala. Yet the Prokofiev opened the opera house in 1972 (and has never been heard of again). Meistersinger overture in the second half also seemed to lack something - perhaps they should have included the opening chorus ‘come scritto’.

If the concert was to be user-friendly and get new people (and keep old hands) interested in the genre, it is essential that patrons can follow the words and drama, which, after all, is the essence of opera. On the night, there were no subtitles, no libretto, no auditorium lighting and in some cases poor enunciation which all conspired to keep us in our respective ignorance. The company should have a birthday resolution that they never perform anything, anywhere unless every member of the audience has access to English titles. This is not rocket science. It was a mercy that the heavy, glossy program was included in the hefty prices of the tickets. A great shame, however, that it did not contain a libretto.

We are lucky to have an opera company in Australia. We are lucky that it puts on high quality opera much of the time. A sign of its maturity, size and scope is that on the very night of this concert, the company put on another concert in the adjoining hall as a tribute to volunteer workers in charitable organisations in the region. Well done to all participants - at least two performed in both concerts on the one night!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

11 October, 2006

Top-rate Julius Caesar at Sydney Opera House

Julius Caesar. GF Handel. Sydney Opera House

Thursday 5th October

CaesarTobias Cole (counter tenor)
CleopatraEmma Matthews (soprano)
CorneliaCatherine Carby (mezzo soprano)
SestoPamela Helen Stephen (mezzo soprano)
AchillaStephen Bennett (bass)
PtolomeoChristopher Field (counter tenor)
NirenoDaniel Goodwin (counter tenor)
ConductorRichard Hickox
Solo ViolinHuy-Nguyen Bui

Dear Colleagues,

One would have to travel a long way to find a performance of equal quality, originality and balance. We were privileged to hear Emma Matthews in one of her finest and most challenging roles as Caesar's Cleopatra. The production by Francisco Negrin and Anthony Baker has an eclectic, diverse and yet meaningful series of settings for the alternating love and hate themes of the opera. We start with a decapitated head (Pompey) and 3½ hours later we have witnessed grand seduction, attempted rape, foul murder, conspiracy, treason, slander, assault, breach of promise, exposure, near-nudity and near-drowning, making a veritable text book of the criminal law.

Extraordinary arias of ever increasing difficulty came from the last female pharaoh, starting with 'Non disperar'. "V'adoro, pupille .. " must be one of the best known Handelian moments after the so-called 'Largo') then to a phenomenal "Da tempesta .. " near the finale. Matthews' voice is crystal clear, accurate and pleasing to the ear. Her acting is confident and persuasive.

The production consisted of numerous settings, each framed with four walls of black and white traditional hieroglyph writing. There were shades of a King Tut exhibition and Mme Tussaud's wax museum with stuffed and gilded African animals, snakes, jewellery, gems and clothing housed in glass cases. One scene was bravely set in a steam room (akin to the NYCO Viaggio) while others took place in a tiled bathing pool room, palace halls and ?quay-side. The lighting was ingenious, particularly in the dining scene.

Tobias Cole has a pleasing, youthful counter-tenor voice. In the lower register he sounds distinctly tenor-like which I do not find off-putting at all. But I have always had a problem with the ruler of the known world singing alto. That is my problem, however, and Cole sings in key, sensitively and with a confidence which hardly seemed in doubt on opening night. Apart from his other set pieces, Cole also has a magnificent show-stopping tour-de-force in his 'duet' with the gypsy violin. Singing in counter tenor register, Mr Cole was able to give his violin partner a run for his money, although the strings always 'win', or at least retreat to allow an honorable dead heat.

Pamela Stephen was the surprise of the night. She played this pants role with charm, dignity and vocal fullness which would be hard to beat. Even more challenging, she was required to almost strip naked which she managed while remaining 'boyishly' in character. Few of the mezzos we know could have done this dual feat in my opinion. Australian audiences are accustomed to a diva's husband being on the podium.

It was a pleasure to hear Stephen Bennett again as hapless Egyptian General, especially amongst the sea of sopranos. I think it is high time we heard Caesar himself as a bass-baritone again to more fairly balance the voices in this Handel masterwork. As we lack castratos these days, we can never know exactly what the opera sounded like originally.

Catherine Carby sang well as Cornelia, but like much of the evening, some of her arias could well have been trimmed without loss to the drama. This production is a needlessly long night in the theatre for audience and performers alike (7pm to 11.20pm). In Handel's day few people probably sat through an entire opera uninterrupted. It was Wagner who brought some discipline to such matters. It is a credit to the Australian company that the third act had almost as many seats filled as the first. Some missed the early start, however.

The supporting cast and chorus were also of the highest standard, including the two other counter tenors, Christopher Field and Daniel Goodwin. One must forgive occasional blurts from the brass, especially when they are placed in the auditorium which now seems 'de rigueur'. That aside, the musicians were excellent, ably led by Richard Hickox along with harpsichord and theorbo in keeping with the period. I recall Jane Glover saying that to be successful in Handel, one had to know not only where the important melodic pauses were, but also the REASON why they were put there. It must help to be English.

There are five more performances during October and a better opera experience would be hard to find.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..