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04 October, 2007

Mid-season Hoffmann hits highs. Plus some theatre reservations

I returned to Contes d’Hoffmann last night and was pleasantly surprised at the number of goose bumps so obtained.

The quirky new production by Maunder and Kirk compliments the opera and has moments of beauty and humour amongst its moral messages.

One must marvel at the resilience of Emma Matthews and Rosario La Spina in going straight into the Venice act from Olympia’s Doll scene. There are now strong occupational and health rules in the orchestra pit. It is about time that singers were given similar protections. There should be two intervals (not one!) and maybe the Antonia act should precede Giulietta (the composer apparently died before finalising the work).

Ms Matthews is at the peak of her powers and is equal to these four roles (if we count Stella). She sang her Olympia Doll Song to President Bush in an APEC spectacular 3 weeks ago.

Rosario La Spina sings with a ‘can belto’ tenor gusto rarely heard in this country (or anywhere, for that matter). He also uses a tender cantabile when needed and I found him the strength of the opera. His French is excellent. One wondered at times if he would be able to keep up the pace but he always landed the notes on the mark and I am sure people at the back heard every phrase.

In what must either be nepotism or coincidence, Mrs Hickox (the Muse, nee Pamela Helen Stephen, wife of Mr Hickox the conductor and musical director of the company) sings two ‘new’ arias - one towards the end of the Antonia scene and one in the epilogue. Neither is particularly important to the story and the second is rather confusing, changing the tantalizing but remote gay interpretation to a tangible character who is obviously male, with a man’s name, played by a woman, dressed and groomed as a woman in this production. While Stephen is a competent artist, one wonders how she will handle the demands of Carmen next year.

John Pringle has been singing with the company for two generations of opera goers. He showed his finesse and flexibility by ably playing the three roles of Luther, tavern keeper, Spalanzani and Mr Crespel, Antonia’s father.

I have also heard Il Trittico again two weeks ago and was delighted with the productions, singers and orchestra. Now that the Puccini season is over, we look forward to Wagner’s Tannhauser next Monday. The Gondoliers also continues as seems remarkably fresh after almost 20 years of re-runs. It is high time the company did Yeoman of the Guard or perhaps Princess Ida.

So patronise or perish! We are lucky to have an opera company in Sydney and its future is not assured unless we make use of it. So (for Sydney-siders or visitors): JUST BUY A TICKET!!! For those without large resources, there are perfectly reasonable cheap D reserve tickets to every performance, but you have to insist at the box office. The price of such ‘restricted view’ seats has increased inordinately in recent years – which is ludicrous considering their unpopularity (I have not seen them full since Sutherland days).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

01 September, 2007

New Tales of Hoffmann at the Sydney Opera House - don't miss it!

Tales of Hoffmann at the Sydney Opera House.

Sat 1st Spring, 2007 7.30pm

4 heroinesEmma Matthews
HoffmannRosario La Spina
NemesisJohn Wegner
MusePamela Helen Stephen
4 tenor charactersKanen Breen
Antonia's mother (not just 'the voice of')Milijana Nikola
Antonia's father, Spalanzani, LutherJohn Pringle
ConductorRichard Hickox
DirectorStuart Maunder
DesignRoger Kirk

Dear Readers,

This may be the 100th incarnation of Offenbach's greatest grand opera legacy. And honour was satisfied to my mind in this new production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann by Stuart Maunder.

Rosario La Spina likewise manages this difficult role with much excitement and only minor blemishes.

Emma Matthews is perfect for Olympia and more than adequate for the other 3 heroines. The Doll song was immaculate. She still does her unique upwards arpeggios but wisely leaves out the couple of notes above the required E flat (I think there was a G natural last time around!).

John Wegner was suave dramatically and vocally superb as well. He shone in the various malevolent roles, especially his gemstone aria with a ringing final high note. Mr Breen played diverse comic parts skillfully. John Pringle played tavern-keeper, Luther, Spalanzani and Antonia's father with style, needing no allowance for his elder statesman status.

There was only one interval, after Olympia and Giulietta, leaving people very thirsty and putting yet more demands on the bars, toilets, audience and more importantly, lead singers. The management must be out of touch to expect this feat of their star singers. The performance finished at 10.25 despite a late start, so time was not of the essence.

Another complaint is that in the face of many excellent Australian mezzos (Johnston, Cullen, Janes, just to name 3) the company 'chose' Ms Pamela Helen Stephen who just happens to partner of conductor and musical director. Adding insult to injury for these underemployed Australian mezzo sopranos, Hickox seems to have discovered two extra arias for Nicklausse, each missing from the Bonynge version Sydney was used to. While Mrs Hickox sang creditably and the arias inserted were marvellous and in keeping with the work, my criticism remains that they should have been sung by an Australian origin artist who got the gig strictly on merit at independent audition.

Stuart Maunder's timeless production was original and meaningful. There were many small details which complimented the libretto but still others which seemed inappropriate. While Antonia's mother rising, like Erda, out of the middle of a grand piano was weird, her appearance as a Beverly Sills look-alike was sympathetic. Olympia being defibrillated seemed quite in keeping with her electronic provenance. A triangular overhanging mirror would have been more helpful in operas with long boring sections but it added little to these riveting tales from our German poet. The addition of an oval ormolu mirror for the shadow/reflection scene was clever yet the funny hospital operating trolley routine was less amusing the second time around.

The language of the evening changed frequently. The vocals were in French while speaking was in English with French introductions. There were no subtitles for the dialogue, so some of this was lost on us, especially when there was orchestral accompaniment. Mixing languages is problematic but the rule should be that there are titles for every line in the opera. The accents in English seemed artificial 'private school'.

The evening was sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank which celebrated their 30th year of involvement by sponsoring a pair of opera glasses for every member of the audience. Those sitting next to one of the numerous empty seats may have taken two pairs. The only 'connection' in the opera was the moribund moneylender Elias who is referred to in the libretto thus: "As I have no cash to pay you the 500 ducats, I will write you a promissory note for Elias the Jew" to which the response was: "Which bank?" rather than "Ah, Elias! Une maison solide!"

Offenbach's operatic genius shines most brightly after the familiar barcarolle when he combines dual melodies in a way rarely paralleled in opera (try Falstaff, maybe). And Ms Matthews obliges yet again with her 'trade mark' high terminal notes. Likewise at the end of the glorious Antonia trio when she goes up to the sub-mediant, bringing the house down.

This opera again demonstrates the ensemble qualities of this company's chorus, orchestra and production team for which all Australasians should be both proud and grateful. It is a shame that this week's operas have been cancelled due to the APEC conference. So the heads of government from China, Russia, Japan, Canada, USA, and other Pacific countries will miss out on the current feast of opera. Looks to me like terrorism has triumphed yet again.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

20 August, 2007

Sydney Trittico: one soprano for three operas! Also, new season announced.

Sydney Opera House

Il Trittico - Giacomo Puccini - Friday 17/8/07

Also: New Sydney season announced for 2008.

Dear Colleagues,

We were treated to a glorious night of full-blooded opera with the unique feat of Cheryl Barker singing all three soprano roles, disparate as they are. Elizabeth Campbell also featured in each opera: as Frugola, The Abbess and Aunt Zita.

These old Australian Opera productions are ‘realistic’ and lavish, worthy of the stature of the pieces. Despite the ravages of over 30 years and many reprises in various forms in several cities, the sets and costumes looked fresh, especially Schicchi. It would be hard to better them, just as it would be unwise to tamper troppo with Puccini’s detailed instructions.

Dennis O’Neill sang Luigi with gusto and flare. The ‘nostalgia’ duet with Barker was a vocal torrent. Jonathan Summers’ voice seems to be back in fine form and he tore into the role of Michele, reaching rare baritone heights while also plumbing dramatic depths with his ‘Perche non m’ami piu?’.

Suor Angelica saw Ms Barker pouring vocal energies wholesale into this pathetic role. ‘Senza mama’ seems like the easy part! The Principessa role was called ‘the most evil person in all opera’ in a recent ‘Met’ introduction (and their new productions were also realistic, if massive). Milijana Nikolic was devastating as the Sydney Principessa just as Stephanie Blythe had done in New York earlier this year. The emotive ending and marvelous music make us forget that this is really just another common but sorry story of reactionary depression and suicide, largely precipitated by an unyielding church and social mores.

Schicchi’s Florentine death-bed comedy is one of the great gems of the operatic stage - and the composer’s only foray into the lighter genre. Like Moliere, he parodies doctors and lawyers while weaving farcical family foibles into a love match with a happy ending. Again, Cheryl Barker altered her persona and voice to create a perfect young lover dressed in apricot. As her Rinuccio Henry Choo was dressed up to kill, sounding far more comfortable in this role than he had with the recent Rossini. His ‘Firenze e un arbor fiorito’ was splendid, just as Barker’s pot-boiler ‘O mio babino caro’ was well received.

Jonathan Summers ended the night playing the Divine Dante with some (spoken) words of wisdom and absolution. This opera may be the closest that true grand opera comes to Broadway.

There are ten performances in the next 5 weeks and if Sydney-siders (and George Bush who is coming for the APEC meeting) are sensible, these will all be full!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

The new season’s brochure was released this week. We have Otello and Masked Ball with Mr O’Neill. Boheme’s and Carmen’s until they are coming out of your ears. Arabella and Orlando I do not particular care to hear, but I know many others do. Cinderella, Pearlfishers and Lucia are always worth another airing to my limited taste, as long as they have decent singers. Three unlikely works take a great deal of scarce vocal resources: Makropoulos Secret, Billy Budd and Pilgrim’s Progress (6, 7 and 1 performances). And the former two are being done with stellar casts and in the same month, October 2008. One gets the impression that the English and modern European repertoire are receiving priority, despite being connoisseur’s pieces and unpopular with the average opera-goer. The Opera Australia management operates in mysterious ways. They do not appear to be poll driven, and I am not sure if that is good or bad. There certainly seems to be little communication with their public. They might consider addressing the major problems of the Opera House toilets and transport which are rather fundamental to the ‘opera experience’ we keep hearing about! It is also hard to believe tactless new opera motto which includes the word "amplified".

02 August, 2007

Sydney Streetcar - not for me!

Sydney Opera House

A Streetcar Named Desire. Andre Previn. Thursday 2 August 2007

Dear Colleagues,

I concede my ignorance, having seen neither play nor movie of this name. Reports from others indicate both would run rings around the work as an opera. And this, despite an excellent drama played out on a fine revolving set with tasteful and meaningful projections, scrim and sensitive lighting work.

Composers should be compelled to write a beautiful melody before writing an opera or a musical. Some successful operas (eg. Werther) contain but one unique tune. Although a ripping and gripping yarn, Previn’s Streetcar lacked the essentials of opera to my mind and ear. There is no chorus. There is no memorable overture. There is no grand aria (some will argue with this, but I would ask them to sing it!). There are high notes, yet they are discomforting and in some cases painfully disconnected with the vocal line, such as it is, largely recitative. Under Tom Wood, the orchestra launches into strains of fine jazz at times, but each melts back into the seamless, discordant ‘traffic’ noise of Previn’s penned score.

As I was not elevated by the musical goings on, I quietly mused on the rise and fall of the American Empire. New Orleans is now a decimated city from neglect and storms. The twin towers are gone due to resentment abroad. And just as we sat comfortably in the Sydney Opera House, people were stunned to find cars and people thrown into the waters of the northern Mississippi where a defective public bridge just collapsed without warning.

Yvonne Kenny has again attempted a role which is beyond her current capabilities vocally although she is a fine actress and is convincing enough as Blanche Dubois. Her diva talents extended to some unpleasant high notes, but also some beautiful, extended pianissimi. But this does not an opera make.

Stella was played with flair by Antoinette Halloran and her husband Stanley by Teddy Tahu Rhodes. The latter donned numerous variously torn garments and he drank perhaps a dozen bottles of beer during the course of the evening. Harold was played by Stuart Skelton, holding his own with some difficult tenor singing and convincing acting. Andrew Brunsdon, Angus Wood and Catherine Carby each also put in proficient performances. The decision to use southern accents was probably a mistake, coming out as a mish-mash of drawls. One early line involved the ubiquitous expression “y’all” yet was still pronounced “you all”!

A friend commented that she found the opera lacked the feeling of heat, something which pervaded the play and movie. No wonder Miss Blanche is always taking a bath and Stanley always reaching for a ‘stubby’ of beer. There certainly was little to indicate a serious summer to my recollection. Although there was an electric fan, it was not even switched on.

In fact, the evening was a dead loss for me, as an old fashioned opera person. The story is rather convoluted in three acts on the same sets. It almost keeps the theatrical ‘unities’ (baby is born presumably some months later). There is no crucial dramatic moment to my mind. The ‘rape scene’ towards the end is not used to dramatic or musical advantage and we are left with the unresolved contradiction of Blanche as either the rambunctious flirt from Laurel Mississippi or equally possibly the maiden school marm as she presented originally in the play/opera.

All in all a let down. But did we really expect Verdi, Puccini of Bernstein? I don’t think so!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

13 July, 2007

Seraglio at the Sydney Opera House. Get a ticket if you can!

Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The Abduction from the Seraglio

Friday 13th July 2007.

Conductor Jonathan Darlington. Direction Michael Gow. Design: Robert Kemp.

Originally done in 2000, this ‘Middle Eastern Airport’ production of Seraglio pre-dated the modern era of east-west relations. It was a worthy reprise, uncomplicated by the disasters of the opening season (mostly winter viruses and not terrorism).

The night came off without a hitch … well, almost. A disturbed or very young person seated in the front stalls kept oohing and ahring loudly, especially in the quiet patches. At times, she was more audible than matters on stage! I am sure the management does not wish to court controversy, but it was embarrassing.

Emma Matthews and Natalie Jones were excellent as Constanza and Blonde, the latter in blue jeans and bare-waisted. And they both put in a succession of high notes suitably spaced by all the many others, as written by the demanding young Mozart (he never got old, of course). ‘Marter aller arten’ is one of the great feats of endurance for the coloratura and remarkably, both of these sopranos have performed it on this stage!

The night’s major delight, however, was young Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin who has apparently been training in St Petersburg, Russia. He sang the socks off the difficult role of Belmonte including his beautiful and difficult aria ‘Ich bauer ganz’. He just might be our great white hope, given the as yet unexplained absence of the public’s favourite tenor, David Hobson. Apparently unpopular with management, he was still in excellent voice when last we heard him. Mr Goodwin played Fenton for us in 2006 and he seems to have progressed nicely both vocally and dramatically to encompass Belmonte. His voice has a pleasant timbre while also being accurate and substantial.

Company regular Andrew Brunsdon seemed relaxed and comfortable as Pedrillo, no mean feat either.

Peter Rose from England did a full voiced Osmin and we were off to a head start for good opera. Yet somehow after an excellent first act, the tension seemed to lag, suspense waned and nothing much waxed, leaving a slightly empty feeling at the end, despite nothing going awry. Maybe it is the ‘rescue’ drama and lack of curtain corpses in this middle ranking moral comedy.

Kenneth Ransom plays an excellent Pasha Selim, one of the only major roles in opera which requires no singing. After a grubby and drab Middle Eastern airport for act I we were transported to an immaculate room in the palace replete with the fineries of Islamic art as currently on show at the Art Gallery of NSW.

The World Trade Center attacks altered western life in so many ways, including the way we attend opera. Only Wagner probably made greater changes. We have all had to get used to added security, double ticket checks, less access for cars and bag/body searches. This production, which just pre-dates the New York unpleasantness, may not be as acceptable nowadays to some. The Prophet (MHBP) is mentioned more than once and Moslem habits put on show. Polygamy, male dominance, female modesty, abstinence from alcohol and prayers are all showcased. Brutish militias are paraded with AK47-type weaponry. Despite some negative aspects of eastern foibles, the plot hinges on the compassion of the Pasha, showing the less publicized but probably more common ‘soft’ side of Mohammedan principles.

I found English dialogue and German vocals to be a most satisfactory compromise. Perhaps once day it will be done in Arabic! The orchestra and chorus were excellent under Maestro Darlington. Such a work is ideally suited to the Sydney Opera hall which seats 1500. There are major plans afoot for a reconstruction of this hall but no guarantees that acoustics will be bettered or even maintained in the process. I say leave it alone as it is ideal for most Puccini, Donizetti and Mozart operas with the Wagner and other ‘Grande’ operas (eg. Aida) moved to the Concert Hall (seats 2700).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

03 July, 2007

Il Trovatore in Sydney. Classic grand opera with bells and whilstles

Il Trovatore. Giuseppe Verdi. Sydney Opera House.

Tuesday 3rd July 2007.

ManricoDennis O'Neill
LeonoraNicole Youl
AzucenaBernadette Cullen
Count di LunaMichael Lewis
FerrandoShane Lowrencev
ConductorRichard Armstrong
DirectorElke Neidhardt
SetsMichael Scott-Mitchell

Dear Colleagues,

This would have been a worthy season opening, having all the attributes of good retail opera. Il Trovatore is a dark work yet Ms Neidhardt does many inspired things in her production which is set in Franco's Spain. Tuneful solos, duets, trios and concerted singing can make for a satisfying night out. And our opening night cast did not disappoint.

The most challenging vocal feat of the night was not written by Verdi at all. In 1850 a tenor's high C, even if it were written, would have been sung in falsetto rather than the open, ringing chest voice we heard from Dennis O'Neill. A slight beat in his off stage 'Troubador' song just served to remind us that opera is a marathon. Like many other vocal athletes, he takes a little warming up. And the high-C of 'Di quella pira' is just one of many feats required of Manrico. He was still holding centre stage both vocally and dramatically until killed in full view at the opera's shocking conclusion some hours later.

Nicole Youl sang a dignified Leonora. Her voice becomes a little harsh on the highest notes yet she sang most of the hard options and she did both cabalettas creditably.

Michael Lewis (the husband of Ms Youl in real life) seems more vocally relaxed this year as Count de Luna. His 'Il balen del suo sorriso' was glorious.

Bernadette Cullen was also in excellent voice, playing a drear yet intense gypsy mother. I could not fathom why she was dressed in army fatigues when apprehended. The up-dating to Civil War period seemed to fit in very well with the story (unlike the 'Barber of Barcelona' last week!!).

Long time Welsh National Opera conductor Sir Richard Armstrong seemed a little out of water at times. On two occasions, one with the full chorus, the timing between pit and stage went wildly out.

We are fortunate indeed to have an opera company in this antipodal backwater. I find it odd that we have two major season openings and the Musical Director, Richard Hickox is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he had a better offer.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

26 June, 2007

Fawlty Towers comes to Sydney in Barber Gala

Barber of Seville, Sydney Opera House

Tuesday 26th June 2007

The glittering opening night audience was unsuspecting. One could not have imagined a more ambitious but less auspicious performance for the start of a long winter opera season.

Warwick Fyfe was ill and younger, tolerably decent baritone, Andrew Moran played Bartolo MD at short notice. José Carbó played an excellent, handsome and comical Figaro but that was about where it ended. The extraordinary set was a Gaudi inspired hotel/spa foyer, staircase and mezzanine. And the guests included S. Dali, painter, loopy lady in fur choker, army colonel, matador in a neck brace and picador with tendonitis, each guest receiving therapy of one kind or another. There was a nurse Rachett who kept putting thermometers into people’s orifices (which was slightly amusing the first time around).

With some imagination the opera set could have been a latter-day episode of “Faulty Towers”. There was a lift-up reception counter, telephone, registration books, electric panel, upstairs rooms, ladder scene, etc. Ambroglio played Manuel played by Jack Webster. Berta played Sybil played by Rosemary Gunn. And a bumptious Bartolo played Basil Faulty (Mr Moran). Yet the humour frequently fell flat in this opera.

I suspect that Amelia Farrugia did exactly the opposite of what Rossini wanted as Rosina (is she Polly?). Light on top, she put in extra notes from the first lines of ‘Una voce poco fa’ and tried some stratospheric frills which did not all work out (and no terminal high F!). A vocal ‘canary’ rather than buxom beauty. No disaster, but hardly a memorable performance.

Henry Choo managed ‘Ecco ridente’ reasonably well but received no applause, despite a (pregnant) musical pause. His falsetto extension is not really acceptable. The thought of singing to a beloved upstairs in the same building was novel, as was ‘escaping’ from a supposed balcony back into the interior of the same building. The whole spa idea just had too many compromises and deviations from the book.

Richard Bonynge seemed to lag in his tempo until the very end of each piece, then bringing things up to the speed you had hoped they might have been all along. The orchestra sounded ill prepared and unbalanced. Apart from the brass being unreliable (blurting, missing, etc) the strings sounded scratchy at times. Brian Castles-Onion played harpsichord reliably.

Joan Sutherland sat with opera boss Adrian Collette in the 7th row of the stalls. I did not see her close up but she seemed to be animated in discussions with others around her. She always looks like she has a stiff neck, and she has certainly lost several vertebral bodies to osteoporosis, the curse of the fairer sex. It is extraordinary to think of the billions of goose bumps she has caused in her 40 years on the opera stage.

There was no sign of regular patron State Governor Marie Bashir MD, a great opera supporter who so ably waves British, Australian and Lebanese flags. She may have stayed away knowing ahead of time that there were problems in the ranks for this Gala.

Needless to say, there was no ‘Piu non resistere’ concluding scene as the tenor, Henry Choo, while quite good, was hardly up to any extras such as this add-on (also found in Cinderella).

The direction of this comedy was uninspired - at times it was tedious. There was no unifying idea beyond people almost bumping into each other and moving chairs around the stage. Figaro did his final whodunit explanatory piece clutching a lantern sideways for no apparent reason (‘I see the light?’). People regularly mounted the centrally placed Art Nouveau faux grand piano - again, to no particular purpose. The costumes looked like they were made of brightly coloured felt and Velcro with painted on ribbons, buttons, etc. Maybe that was how the company actually made a profit last year!

Barber is almost 200 years old (b. 1813) yet it is a survivor and a comic masterpiece. Sydney had a glorious production before the last ‘dolls house’ one and I just don’t know why they did not bring it back rather than spending money on this new, lifeless show. There are still some splendid moments in this, such as the ‘Numero quindici’ duetto in Act I. With tighter routines and timings, this production can only get better. Does a season of 20 shows constitute a record?

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

20 April, 2007

Trittico Gala at the Met - splendid opera on a grand scale

Metropolitan Opera

8pm – 12.20am (!) Friday 20 April 2007


GiorgettaMaria Guleghina
MichelePatrick Burchinal
LuigiSalvatore Licitra
TincaDavid Cangelosi
TalpaPaul Plishka
SongsterJohn Nuzzo
FrugolaStephanie Blythe


AngelicaBarbara Frittoli
NunsWendy White,
Heidi Grant Murphy,
Maria Zifchak,
Patricia Risley
PrincessStephanie Blythe


ZitaStephanie Blythe
SimoneDonato di Stefano
RinunccioMassimo Giordano
SchicchiAlessandro Corbelli
LaurettaOlga Mykytenko
RelativesPatricia Risley,
Jeff Mattsey,
Jennifer Check,
Bernard Fitch,
Patrick Carfizzi,
Jacob Wade
DoctorPaul Plishka
LawyerDale Travis


ConductorJames Levine
ProductionJack O’Brien
SetsDouglas W. Schmidt
CostumesJess Goldstein
LightingJules Fisher,
Peggy Eisenhauer

Dear Colleagues,

Il Trittico had its world premiere at the Met in 1918 and had only one new production here since, in 1975. This much touted recreation, by Jack O’Brien, is said to be one of the most ambitious ventures of the Met.

Billed as a ‘night of nights’, there was a half page item in the NY Times the day of the Gala. And few could have been disappointed. The three contrasting works were put on with care, skill and excitement to a rapturous applause.

Each of the four stage settings (yes, Schicchi had two sets), was spectacular and received applause – something I always find irritating – but it was hard not to want to join in. The barge on the Seine was massive and realistic in its dreariness, and adjacent loading wharves, skyline of Paris in the background at dusk. An enormous steel pedestrian bridge surmounted the entire setting, from stone steps on the quayside.

Suor Angelica occurred in what looked like an idyllic monastery with two matching cloisters on left and right of a chapel. Huge double doors had a gilded Filipo Lippi-esque nativity which turned ‘3-D’ in the last minutes of the heart tugging story. The latter could easily have been missed due to an intense white beam shone from the chapel roof at the end.

Gianni Schicchi took place in a large Florentine studio apartment with spiral staircase to glorious Boboli type garden on the roof. This only appeared in the last minutes of the opera as the entire set sank to reveal our lovers and muse, Schicchi overlooking the whole of Florence and the Tuscan valleys. We are in the 1960s so much is very familiar to baby boomers. Specifically there were cocktail frocks, shirt sleeves, an old ‘portable’ television, oxygen cylinder, face mask (to obscure face from lawyer) etc.

I never thought that Frugola would ever be the star of the night, yet Stephanie Blythe sang and acted life into this quaint character.

Juan Pons was replaced by Frederick Burchinal as Michele in Il Tabarro. He was adequate but hardly in Pons’ class.

Salvatore Licitra also sang impressively on the night as Luigi. The duet with Ms Guleghina was electric. She was shrill and somewhat uneven but still very exciting - while his death and exposure was painful as it was shocking.

Frugola’s husband was played by wobbly veteran Paul Plishka who forgot his shared exit lines. It is intriguing to this outsider that the Met keeps on some of these old-timers (Ramey, Plishka, Anthony) while reportedly dropping popular singers in their prime like Hong and Swenson. Old men are kept on but women in their vocal prime are dropped!

Ms Blythe also excelled in two further roles (the Princess and Aunt Zita) which meant that her extremely large and beautiful voice became a bench-mark for the evening.

Suor Angelica, starring Barbara Frittoli, was most moving with handkerchiefs at the ready as the heavenly baby boy appeared at the chapel door, beckoning.

Schicchi, played by booming master of comedy, Alessandro Corbelli, was highly enjoyable. Not a single detail was lost from the brilliant libretto and many new details added. These included an adjoining bathroom where the youngest Donati suddenly had to relieve himself (and subsequently flush the chain to the score). The (visible) bath also doubled as a repository for Buoso’s body.

I was delighted to find that the Met has finally taken my advice and installed subtitles in other languages (German and Spanish so far) for all new productions this season.

Was it enjoyable? Yes, sure. Each of the pot-boilers was beautifully sung, some especially so: Perche non m’ami piu?; ‘Nostalgia’ duetto; Senza mama; Oh mio babbino caro; Firenze e come un albero fiorito. The program denotes 9 principal roles yet there are at least another 9 smaller solo roles, all well acquitted.

The orchestra played well under Mr Levine who took things on the slow side at times, usually to good effect. The sets, costumes and direction were effective and original. A roar of applause occurred as the 4 progenitors appeared at curtain call.

Opening night had a few hitches, timing being one of them. Each intermission was about 10 minutes longer than planned and the evening went on until 12.20am. Some of the stage sets and machinery creaked and clunked at times. The stage elevator used at the end seemed to take a false start but then operated to brilliant effect, taking us from a cavernous bed-sit boudoir to an expansive balcony showing us the entire Tuscan skyline, centered on the tower of Giotto and Duomo dome of Brunelleschi. I don’t know why the curved centre balustrade was green.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

14 April, 2007

Andrea Chenier at the Met. Verismo at its very best. Wed 11th April

11 April 2007

Dear Colleagues,

I am surprised at all the carping criticism of this new Met production and the lack of an ‘Italianate’ tenor for the title role. I enjoyed it enormously, especially Ben Heppner (although he is NOT my favourite tenor). The production is realistic - but with a twist. We open to a magnificent upward sloping royal blue carpet with a fleur-de-lys motif. A lop-sided, centrally placed, outsized gilded over-mantle mirror was facing us. In front was a six-seater Empire sofa, as required by the libretto and this was the only prop used on the expanse of blue carpet on this set (by Hubert Monloup who also did the costumes).

The party scene emphasised the chasm between rich and poor as every guest was dressed in yellow of every hue from deep cream to canary finery. The contrast with the poor street people was similar to the Manhattan juxtaposition which still happens today. France and America have each had at least one revolution … but best not for an Australian to go there!

Ms Urmana was magnificent, using a resonant chest register up accurate high soprano notes. Mark Delavan was solid and at times exciting.

Act II took place in a Paris street-scape which was effective and beautiful. The devious events which took place were vehicles for Giordano’s marvellous melodies and vocalising.

Act III also ‘worked’ as a courthouse, albeit à la Kangarou, leading to Act IV after a ‘brief pause’. This final scene had a set and direction which just did not make sense to me. The music is so glorious that I did not let it worry me and just revelled in the spectacular duet. The ending had Heppner in full voice, taking all his high notes (apart from his second last one eschewed, with Urmana ‘covering’).

One did not have the feeling, as in his Lohengrin, that he lacked confidence. As Chenier, he was still being ‘careful’, regularly taking a separate breath before a high note, but then placing each perfectly and bringing his customary volume and velvet tone to the note.

A privilege to be in New York to hear such singing. A sadness that only about three quarters of the house was sold.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

03 April, 2007

Netrebko and Villazon - 'a chemistry lesson' at the Met

Metropolitan Opera 40 year anniversary Gala with Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko.

7pm Tuesday 3rd April 2007.

La Boheme Act I

Manon (Massenet) Act III Scene 2

L’Elisir d’Amore Act II, Scenes 1&2

(one interval, between Manon and Elisir)

Ms Netrebko has an enormous and accurate if somewhat innominate voice while Mr Villazón has a distinctly smaller, immediately recognisable, rich, smooth voice with a tight, natural vibrato. However, it would be wrong to suppose that he was out of place in the Met since his voice is more substantial than many Met regulars and is also well focused and projected. There was little doubt, however, that on occasions he was ‘pushing’ which could not be said of Ms Netrebko whose voice sailed out effortlessly to fill this huge house. They interacted to perfection.

Act I of Boheme was as Latin and Bohemian as it could be. Initially an all-boy show, the final three ‘set pieces’ sung by our stars, ‘Che gelida’, ‘Mi chiamano’ and ‘O soave fanciulla’ were incomparable dramatically and vocally. The high passage near the end of his aria left some notes lacking colour and slightly pushed. Some who were listening to the radio broadcast heard these as ‘cracked’ notes which was certainly not the case in the theatre. Despite some diminished beauty, equilibrium was restored for the end of this famous aria and the rest of the night was unblemished.

Partly true to the Boheme libretto, the next scene was also in Paris as we found ourselves transported to the vestry of L’Eglise de St Suplice (rather than Café Momus). Here, a chorus of doting female parishioners praises the new trainee priest, Des Grieux the younger, who told his father that he had renounced the world since his life has been so cruel and unrewarding. As Des Grieux senior, Samuel Ramey had a pronounced vocal wobble of about 2Hz. And in this brief scene he had no full aria to show off his incomparable bass baritone powers and it was a surprise to see him in this walk-on role.

Next, following his soulful solo ‘Ah fuyez, douce image’ Manon arrives unexpectedly and seduces him using a motif first heard in Act I (‘N’est-ce pas la main’).

Like the present Met Julius Caesar, The Elixir of Love is a splendid production from the genius of John Copley. It incorporates the fun and beauty of the piece as well as the charm and innocence of an idyllic Italian village in the 1800’s. And the young lovers gave us another surfeit of mature vocalism and dramatic innocence. Amongst my earliest operatic memories were my father playing Caruso 78’s, including the duetto ‘Venti sciudi’ and solo ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. The latter was taken particularly slowly by Mr Villazón – yet NOT encored as it was in Vienna – to great effect and deserved acclaim. However, he ends with slightly different words: “Si puo morir (pauss) .. morir d’amor … d’amor”. Caruso and Pavarotti sang ‘Si puo morir, si puo morir … d’amor’.

Although enthralled by his recordings for some years, this was my first live Villazón. I may have been happier if it had been in a smaller theatre. The vocal colouring which figures so prominently in his recordings was only evident occasionally during the Gala and mainly when the orchestra was thin. Mr Villazón can bring a slow diminuendo into a full open note it again to full voice. Also, his breath control is such that he takes whole legato brackets where other top singers break. And there always appears to be reserve for more. His stage presence is natural, both comic and serious. Most effective were his interactions with Belcore, his military rival. The emotion conveyed in his voice is impossible to describe in simpler terms. Suffice it to say that his single word in Don Carlo “rubato” (robbed) is as expressive as 1000 pictures of ‘love lost’.

Ms Netrebko took some coloratura options, each of which came off. There appeared to be some extra soprano music in the Elisir but maybe I am dreaming that. While her high C was fully audible in the joyous finale, Villazon was not. He wisely (and correctly) did not take the high C ‘option’ at the end of the Boheme duet.

Another star of this Gala evening was Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien who we also saw in Don Pasquale last year. He performed Marcello and Belcore with flare and style. I hope we hear more of him.

Old timer Paul Plishka was an irritating if appropriate landlord, Benoit, in the Boheme. Other soloists were just fine and Bertrand de Billy presided over the wonderful Met orchestra whose members must know these pieces by heart.

The audience was almost as interesting as the performance. Renata Scotto, Barbara Cook and Beverly Sills were all in the audience. I was also told that Mignon Dunn and Lucine Amara were also in the house. Martin Bernheimer, the sometimes caustic critic, was at the ready. The rich and prosperous/idle were there, recognisable in expensive furs and pearls which would not be on show in a ‘normal’ town. The needy and the operatic greedy were also present. There were a few orchestra stalls seats left on the evening at $250 while some premium tickets had been sold for $750, over $1000 including dinner with the stars in the foyer which was all set up beautifully by the caterers, but impeding patrons’ exeunt … and probably contrary to city fire laws.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

31 March, 2007

New York La Traviata - Zeffirelli at his best with great singing as well

La Traviata – the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Sat 31st March 2007 8pm

ViolettaKrassimira Stoyanova
AlfredoJonas Kaufmann
GermontDwayne Croft
Cond.Marco Armiliato
Production & set designs:Franco Zeffirelli

Dear Colleagues,

This was a superb Traviata performance in an inspired production with world class principals, orchestra and chorus.

Both soprano Stoyanova and tenor Kaufmann started out somewhat weakly but each quickly rose to the substantial occasion.

I was surprised to note that the free Met program now gives over 4 pages to advertising an addictive sleep medication including a free 7 day trial offer. And this is in the country which, like Saudi Arabia, banned alcohol! Some strange harmony of contrasts!

Back to our night’s opera which has spectacularly beautiful sets designed by Franco Zeffirelli who also did the production. He must have been given an unlimited budget, just as the composer was for his later operas. I recall once seeing this production when the overture saw Violetta in her upstairs bedroom preparing for the Act I party scene. As she descended the curved staircase to the parlor, the entire set rose to show the party scene in full swing. The stage is a sumptuous set of three rooms across with a dance floor also visible through glass doors up-stage. We have chairs, cushions, couches, mantelpiece, trays, glasses and all the other attributes of a good party. In this production we only saw use of the Met stage elevator for the last act which commenced in the upstairs boudoir and moved to the eviscerated parlor for the return of the Germonts. It was impressive mechanically and visually but hardly credible in one too weak to get dressed that she could descend a spiral staircase and cross two rooms unaided (but this is the theater!).

Mention should be made of the other two substantial sets. The second act ‘country’ scene takes place in a huge glass conservatory or ‘orangerie’ looking out onto a lake surrounded by mountains. It looked more like Milford Sound than the Loire valley. A charming setting for the wrenching music of act II.

Mr Zeffirelli pulls out all the stops for the casino scene, a tiered festive chamber with curved steps convex and concave surmounted by deep red translucent curtains adorned with jewels. Props include papier-mâché heads on sticks from the theatre of the absurd, mock matadors, mock bulls and mock gypsies (and real castañets). And all making a wonderful foil for the tense scene between the parted lovers.

Bulgarian Ms Stoyanova has a voice which is large and accurate. If ‘white’ in quality, she shades it delicately from finest pianissimo to a broad bellow. She has a serviceable trill and staccato facility. She left out the (unwritten) E flat in ‘Sempre libera’ yet seemed secure on all her other high tessitura. Munich born Mr Kaufmann has a splendid and rare tenor voice, worthy of the part and of the theatre. Once again, capable of taking a loud note back to the softest audible and returning to full voice, all without appearing to show off beyond the requirements of the score. Their ‘Parigi O cara’ duet was taken particularly slowly by Maestro Amiliato to excellent effect. Kaufman looked somewhat awkward in Act I, perhaps just ‘in character’. Unlike most off-Broadway tenors, he is young, tall, slim and handsome.

Baritone Dwayne Croft acts well and he possesses a sublime, warm voice. However, he fell just short on his highest notes which seemed a little uncomfortable. I don’t know why the Met always leaves out Germont senior’s animated cabaletta after his ‘Di Provenza il mar il suol’. This leaves us with a precipitous and unnatural termination of the action as the spotlight suddenly moves to the Paris casino invitation from Flora while the curtain is falling.

An excellent performance, being the final after a long Met season – and three different Violettas.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

29 March, 2007

GREAT Pirates! Shame about Flavio and Donna del Lago, also at NYCO

New York City Opera

Final season performance Thursday 29th March 2007

SamuelScott Guinn
Pirate KingMarc Kudisch
FrederickMatt Morgan
RuthMyrna Paris
MabelSarah Jane McMahon
Major GeneralMark Jacoby
SergeantKevin Burdette
Cond.Gerald Steichen
DirectorLillian Groag

Dear Colleagues,

The last performance of this G&S was most enjoyable with a polished and hilarious routine with purpose and vigour. Americans take their G&S very seriously. There were many in pirate shirts, pirate hats, scarves and eye patches. There was even a private reception for fans in the foyer - which I accidentally ‘crashed’. And they had a piano.

It must have been a challenge, especially following the successful modern Broadway version, to do something ‘different’ to this Victorian chestnut. The NYCO decided to go back to the original era – and avoid most modern stage effects in favour of cardboard cut-out illusions, flags, ribbons, ropes, backdrops and simple props, all of which might have dated from the 19th century theatre. According to the program, Maestri Gilbert and Sullivan had travelled to New York to mount a revival of Pinafore in late 1879 while also working on the score for Pirates which was still under wraps for a premiere on Broadway on New Year’s eve.

The overture started with four young ladies watching a stage within a stage of clever imagery displaying nautical themes, Victorian personalities, etc. They were joined by a lone pirate who slid down a rope from the flies. Their responses and the stage antics were hilarious, bringing out the staff to have him ejected for unruly behaviour. We were treated to a sinking galleon, SS Titanic, Wagner, Verdi and even Queen Victoria herself who later poured tea for the maidens in Act II.

The orchestra played superbly with some deviations from the original score on three occasions: Ms McMahon’s coloratura “Poor wandering one” used the cadenza from Lucia’s mad scene, flute included. The Aida trumpet obligato sounded briefly after some Egyptian stage items from that opera were carried across the stage at the start of Act II when Major General Stanley had retired to his draughty dressing room. Next arrived our male chorus on board ship to the strains of Flying Dutchman. These all caused great mirth amongst the regular opera goers but must have flummoxed the rest. The choreography was animated and complex, including three cartwheels done by Mabel in place of a walk off exit!

The Cornish beach front was transferred to Brighton, complete with pier and portable bathing change rooms. The “Modern Major General” song was encored with double time for verse 3 which is normally done lento.

The singing was from good to excellent with a large chorus of both sexes filling the hall which is more than could be said for any of the principal singers, even with microphones. The amplification was still subtle but insufficient for that chasm of a theatre. Somebody dropped their body microphone at one point causing an embarrassing clunking/scraping which took a minute to remedy.

All in all a highly enjoyable evening at the theatre despite these small setbacks.

I wish I could say the same of Flavio and Donna del Lago, both of which I found uneven and boring. It is hard to believe that the same composer wrote Julius Caesar with so much when Flavio has so little. I don’t enjoy counter-tenors in major roles. They are unnatural, strained and nearly always of much less volume than ‘normal’ voices, male and female. From the many descriptions and one recording, they certainly bear little relation to what castrati must have sounded like. It remains to be seen what happens to their vocal mechanism after decades of singing in this manner. My guess is that such singing is not consistent with a long vocal life for most. David Daniels’ smooth and beautiful singing is an exception but even he sounds small and boyish next to Ruth Anne Swenson in full flight.

Despite its lovely score, only one singer did justice to Donna del Lago. Laura Vlasak Nolen as Malcolm was capable of projecting the Rossini bel canto into this vocally unfriendly ‘barn’. In act I she sings ‘Mura Felici’; ‘Elena! Oh Tu, Che Chiamo!’ ‘Oh Quante Lagrime’ as a magnificent scena equal to any in opera. The production started with a snow storm and went downhill from there. The stage was not even swept during the intermission (and the ‘snow’ did not melt). Chairs were moved senselessly and the inside/outside scenes were blurred, rather odd for winter in Scotland. Three out of ten. And not a patch on the Blue Hill Troupe’s production of Yeoman of the Guard which I would have given six!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

21 March, 2007

Unique Rusalka at the Sydney Opera House

Rusalka – Wed 21st March 2007, Sydney Opera House.

Wood-sprites – Taryn Fiebig, Domenica Matthews, Sarah Crane
Water Gnome – Bruce Martin
Rusalka (water nymph) – Cheryl Barker
Jezibaba (witch) – Anne-Marie Owens
Prince – Rosario La Spina
Kitchen boy – Sian Pendry
Gamekeeper – Barry Ryan
Foreign Princess – Elizabeth Whitehouse

cond. Richard Hickox
prod. Opera North – Olivier Fuchs
design. Niki Turner

Dear Colleagues,

A packed house was treated to a glorious, long night of beautiful, intelligent and stimulating opera. The season has had its problems with autumn viruses … and to top it off, Ms Whitehouse broke her arm and missed a performance – she was in a sling this time, largely undetectable under her magnificent spreading bright red taffeta gown

Nearly everything in the production came from the text. On literally dozens of occasions there was direct connect between what was happening on stage and the words of the libretto. “Rising mists”; “Goblin’s tangled hair”; “Bubbles rising in the water”; “feet learn to walk”. Incredibly, even when the mute Rusalka mimed, her actions and reactions seemed to come directly from Dvorak’s lush score.

The only disconnect was that the entire production was set within a huge ice block – and there is mention in the score of cool, even ‘icy’ ponds and forests inhabited by the sprites, goblins and nymphs. In fact we were presented with a series of out-sized utilitarian ice cubes, strategically positioned or suspended in relation to the all important small seal hole in the pack ice. Notably, Rusalka performed most of Act I while writhing, mermaid like, atop her 2 metre cube. Her ‘song to the moon’, with its instantly recognizable intervals, was a feast for the ears. At the same time, Miss Barker looked like a latter-day Marilyn Monroe (still without legs or feet at this point). Dvorak left no room for applause as the orchestral line is through written. This also suited the evening’s recording by a private record company. I wondered if there is really still a place for commercial recordings of this nature when the market is flooded with cheap videos and DVD’s showing the ‘whole picture’, some of which seem to be released within days of the event (such as the Olympic Opening Ceremony). It is a shame our operas are no longer televised.

Bruce Martin sat suspended above the ice-hole while the three water nymphs start the action with their rhythmic trio. Their Norn-like commentaries were clever while their movements were engaging and sexy.

I recall the gasping disappointment at the Met when the subtitles first revealed that Renee Fleming would be mute for the remainder of the opera. This left two love duets (on either side of the first intermission) which only contain one voice: the tenor … and each was brilliantly performed by Rosario La Spina who goes on from strength to strength. This time singing in Czech, he looked and sounded a fine eastern Prince. His tessitura, phrasing and high register were all impeccable. This was a rare treat and far superior to Oleg Kulko who sang this part at the Metropolitan in 2004.

Ms Whitehouse used her substantial voice and dramatic presence to divert the Prince’s attentions from poor mute Rusalka whose voice returned at the end of Act 2 when commiserating with her ‘father’, bass Bruce Martin. This part was played by Willard White in New York in two most memorable performances mid-season a couple of years ago (cum Fleming, Urbanova, Zajick).

The transformation scene was performed in hilarious style as our high-heeled sorceress became a part-time session surgeon, complete with rubber gloves, stainless bowl, scalpel and anaesthetic machinery.

Rather than a palace, we were brought into regal company with two intersecting red carpets and a parade of courtiers making no doubt about the setting, imposed on the existing frosty set . Rather than the woods, a few props and a plucked duck clearly indicated where we were. The designer and director deserve full credit for making an almost unbelievable concept “work”.

With excellent contributions from orchestra and chorus this was a special night at the opera indeed. I heard opening night as well – with so few performances, most will have to wait for a return season. Only two performances remain, Monday and Wednesday, this week marking the end of the ‘summer’ season.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

23 February, 2007

Alcina at the Sydney Opera House. Flawed fantasy and (seemingly) forever

Sydney Opera House

Friday 23rd February 2007, 7pm

AlcinaRachelle Durkin
RuggierSarah Castle
BradamanteSally-Anne Russell
MorganaNatalie Jones
OronteHenry Choo
ObertoHye Seoung Kwon
MelissoRichard Alexander
ConductorRichard Hickox
DirectorJustin Way
DesignersAndrew Hays, Kimm Kovac

Dear Colleagues,

This performance was marred by the management breaking some cardinal rules of the theatre. The first rule is to get bums on seats which was successful. However, many of those bums, including mine, were no longer there by the third act which has some of the most enchanting moments in this long work. One reason was the overall length. Apologies therefore, as these disappointments played on my tolerance to stay for the third and final act.

The last time that Alcina was performed here it opened amazingly with not one or two, but half a dozen or more of the greatest talents the country has ever produced (Helpmann, Sutherland, Elkins, Elms, Bonynge, McGregor, Wegner, Pascoe, Neidhardt, etc). The production was lavish and over-the-top, just like this new clever presentation by Justin Way and his team. Yet the company ignored lessons from last time.

From my point of view, the opera was a dismal failure, partly due to the unwillingness of Maestro Hickox to compromise on his obsession with perceived completeness. Alcina is not biblical, nor is it Wagner. Bonynge is a man of the theatre, just like Handel before him. He had no problem cutting ruthlessly to make the evening better for audience and performers alike. It was still a long night and I have the fondest memories of the performances which should have been telecast (there may be an extant recording somewhere).

Apart from Helpmann's glorious production, my main undying memory of Alcina was the show-stopping aria 'Tornami a vaghegiar' with Joan Sutherland. Correctly known as Morgana's aria, it was purloined by her sister, Queen Alcina, showing just why Sutherland was dubbed La Stupenda by her Italian fans. I understand that even in Handel's day such aria swapping was not unknown. To hear this sung by Natalie Jones and not Rachelle Durkin was one of the most disappointing moments in my opera going career which started around 1960 at Rockdale Town Hall. Not that I have any problem with Natalie Jones who I have praised in the past. She sang well. But this is like a mad scene or Queen of Night aria and no sensible impresario would ask the second coloratura soprano to do either of these. Ms Durkin would have been more appropriate for the fiendishly difficult tessitura and dramatic needs of this long piece. Instead we were spoon fed a museum piece.

The production is one of the most elaborate I have seen. It involved a fantasy baroque gilded patina proscenium containing many inlaid figures and motifs almost as varied as Titus's column in Rome. From removable scenery apertures chorus faces and limbs appeared at certain times, some singing, some carrying swinging lights. On the right, a large pond cleverly ran to an imaginary stream which, at the footlights, dipped and dripped into an imaginary earth fissure illuminated all evening evoking a moist subterranean underworld.

Close inspection revealed that huge angled mirrors formed the stage depth. These reflected events on a lowered rear stage populated by dancers in various states of apparently weightless acrobatics. Unfortunately this could only be seen by those in premium view seats. With so many refugees at each intermission, however, others may have seen the marvellous illusion if they upgraded. This was yet another unforgivable part of the evening since even some people in A reserve seats (and most in B and D reserves) would have missed out on the tunnel like kaleidoscopic vista.

The orchestra was reduced and raised with theorbo, harpsichord and 'cello continuo producing an excellent accompaniment to the opera. At one stage a violin solo/obbligato was performed on stage by Huy-Nguyen Bui. While a pleasant diversion, it did not have the same impact as in Julius Caesar.

The quality of the singing went from adequate to exciting and the company should be commended on being able to perform this complex and long work. Yet the final product is a defective and diminutive shadow of its former incarnation on this stage in 1983 and 1987. Perhaps that is just the way the world is. It is only sad that some of the major deficiencies would be simply resolved in my view using red ink which would cost nothing at all (and might even save in orchestra over-time).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

14 February, 2007

La Traviata season heavily booked but free open air 'broadcast' still available

La Traviata, Sydney Opera House

Wed 14th February 2007

Violetta ValéryKate Ladner
Alfredo GermontAldo De Toro
Giorgio GermontWarwick Fyfe
MarquisBarry Ryan
Baron DoupholShane Lawrencev
FloraDomenica Matthews
GastoneGraeme MacFarlane
Doctor GrenvilRichard Anderson

ConductorTom Woods
DirectorElijah Moshinsky
DesignerMichael Yeargan

Dear Colleagues,

Walking along the waterfront towards the Sydney Opera House is a magnificent experience on a clear late summer’s evening. This week we will be able to see BOTH the QE II and the Queen Mary II ocean liners, one on each side of this city peninsular which used to contain a tram depot. Most of the world’s opera houses were built within their cities. Some are almost underground or in large ‘bunker’ buildings. Sydney’s is not the largest, nor the most modern, not the most steeped in history (although 50 years is older than many opera companies these days). It is certainly one of the most interesting externally.

With Elvira Fatykhova and Rosario La Spina, the ‘first cast’ of La Traviata in January impressed Sydney’s demanding audience … yet this ‘second cast’ was in no way ‘second rate’. I was told that the season is virtually sold out - and there was not an empty seat to be seen on Wednesday night.

Kate Ladner makes a splendid Violetta … while Aldo De Toro was more than adequate as her Alfredo. He has a singular and in some ways old fashioned way of singing, using his modest sized voice to benefit. His note placement and movements from one note to another often seem to be by way of several others in a manner which was quite pleasing and having the effect of unwritten ornamentation. It seemed like a cross between a glissando and vibrato but always finally landing on the note accurately. The timbre is smooth and rounded with a ‘Romanate’ quality, consistent with his Latin sounding name. Mr De Toro took the optional high C in the act 2 cabaletta with good effect. There is a slight ‘gear change’ which would only irritate the perfectionist I suspect.

Kate Ladner has a large voice with an exciting ring (or some say ‘ping’). There is no denying that the crowds LOVE a big voice, especially when it is beautiful and used with emotion. She can also trill, roll her ‘Rs’ and manage a high E flat (even if it is of a slightly different quality). I found her acting to be convincing and the audience response was enormous. A small crowd gave her a standing ovation which is most unusual in Sydney.

As Germont senior, Warwick Fyfe is half way to being a great singer. For unknown reasons he is unable or unwilling to modulate his large and accurate voice … even when it is really necessary, such as on ‘Piangi … piangi … ’ in Act II. It was shouted. We should hope for better things in the future if Fyfe can work on the voice.

The smaller roles were sung most competently by Domenica Matthews, Barry Ryan, Graeme MacFarlane, Richard Anderson and Shane Lawrencev.

Maestro Woods seems to have kept on M. Reggioli’s uniquely slow tempi, used to great effect with the Opera and Ballet orchestra in find form. He also managed some nicely contrasting fast sections … without going to extremes.

I noted a lot of American accents in the foyers and was told by a visiting couple from California that United Air had offered recent cheap fares to Australia as well as free tickets on points. A long way to go to the opera, perhaps!

Booking site for open air performance on Saturday 10th March 7.30pm.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

10 January, 2007

Sydney La Traviata (are they in competition with the Met?!)

Sydney Opera House

Wednesday 10th January 2007

Violetta ValeryElvira Fatykhova
Alfredo GermontRosario La Spina
Giorgio GermontWarwick Fyfe
Baron DoupholShane Lawrencev
FloraDomenica Matthews
CondGiovanni Reggioli
DirectorElijah Moshinsky
DesignerMichael Yeargan

Dear Colleagues,

Just as the Met had a La Traviata revival in January, so too did Sydney. And the Sydney Moshinsky/Yeargan production proved an enjoyable outing indeed with several high points.

I thought the orchestral parts were as sensitively played as I have ever heard them whether live or on record. The prelude and third act introduction music were both taken rather more slowly than is traditional - to great benefit musically.

Miss Valery was played to perfection by Elvira Fatykhova. She imparted joy, vulnerability, anger and inanition very well. Looking beautiful in the first two acts, she was suitably morbid by the end. Her voice is large and well focussed yet she is able to use pianissimo to tasteful advantage. Her full-flight ‘Sempre libera’ included a full bodied exciting and sustained penultimate E flat.

Tenor Rosario La Spina started out weakly, I thought, seeming tentative and insecure. By the second act he had come into his own rather well, choosing not only to sing the cabaletta ‘O mio rimoso’, but ending on a stunning high C. I was told that he was thrown by a nasty case of sunstroke, a victim of Sydney's stop-start summer, perhaps. The duets were expressive and credible in my view. Also due to sing Calaf in the Parks Concert in the Domain this month, Mr La Spina is one busy singer. The opera company would be lost indeed without his unique tenor voice. One hopes he is practising his French with upcoming Hoffmann in the winter season.

Our papa Germont was Warwick Fyfe who has a very loud voice. He was a little stiff and failed to impart the warmth we normally expect. Yet the senior Germont character, like that of his son, is far from impeccable. His demands on the behaviour of others are rather high and he could be painted as something of a villain, intent on destroying others’ lives for his own vanity and family pride. So we had a 'Di Provenza' which 'worked' but was not warm and full, but rather dry and superficial, something like good quality advertising, and consistent with the rest of his unusual characterisation (the Germont you love to hate).

Flora, Baron, soloists, guests and orchestra were all just fine to my eye and ear.

The season to date has been packed out and opening night had summer VIPs en masse but without a guest of honour, unless Malcolm Turnbull, Bronwyn Bishop or the annual visitor Geoffery Robinson QC might step into such august shoes in the absence of Vice Royalty.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

03 January, 2007

Marriage of Figaro at the Sydney Opera House - fine opening to summer season

Sydney Opera House

Tuesday 2nd January 2007

FigaroJoshua Bloom
SuzannaTiffany Speight
Dr BartoloJud Arthur
MarcellinaAdele Johnston
CherubinoSally-Anne Russell
Count AlmavivaJosé Carbó
Don BasilioGraeme Macfarlane
Countess AlmavivaLeanne Kenneally
c.Alexander Briger
p.Neil Armfield.

Dear Colleagues,

Having been strongly critical of the national company recently (and there have been some awful gaffs), I also should give credit where it is due. So ten points out of ten for the premiere of Nozze di Figaro in Armfield and Ferguson's 'vinegar and brown paper' revival.

I was told that conductor Alexander Briger is a nephew of Sir Charles Mackerras. He clearly has an excellent 'handle' on Mozart yet he is apparently prepared to countenance some liberties both in tempi and vocal ornamentation. We heard Sally-Anne Russell as Cherubino singing ‘Voi che sapete’, one of the most perfectly constructed arias in the canon. But it was gilded with ever-increasing ornamentation, including grace notes, triplets, runs and possibly acciaccaturas, each to no apparent purpose, and losing some of the grand simplicity and symmetry of the work. For the countess, ‘Porgi amor’ was sung ‘come scritto’ but its parallel number, ‘Dove sono’ was ornamented slightly, once again, one wonders to what effect. Did somebody think they would improve the original Mozart? Some of my knowledgeable correspondants are persuaded that Mozart actually approved these versions, but I am still not used to them.

Yet these are small criticisms of an otherwise marvellous operatic night at the theatre. Figaro, after all, is a moral comedy about sex, fidelity, identity, humiliation and comeuppance. Its first lines are about the placement of a wedding bed, a gift from a rival who lives in the next room! Taken too seriously, this opera's drama, like Magic Flute, can drag on interminably, despite the wonderful music, starting out with one of the best-ever overtures.

José Carbó sang Count Almaviva with great flare. He was bare chested in act I and suitably regal in military black velvet for his formal scenes. He may have also taken some liberties with his third act aria. Joshua Bloom again showed himself to have what it takes both vocally and dramatically with a totally convincing Figaro. Like Cherubino in act I, he was required to simulate sex on stage, lowering his baroque pantaloons more than once in the last act (at least he was married by then!). His dramatic and comic sense were a perfect foil for his substantial and pleasant baritone voice.

Leanne Kenneally played an elegant and conservative Countess (Rosina). Her 2 big arias were creditable - as was her stage sense and recitatives - she is a great asset to the company.

Tiffany Speight, a one-time Cherubino, sang and acted an excellent Suzanna on this outing. Her last act ‘Deh vieni, non tadar’ was admirable. Sally-Anne Russell was fine on this occasion in the gender-bender role of Cherubino. She was especially good in the difficult ‘Non so piu’ aria. The other supporting principals were also finely cast and performed well, as did the chorus and orchestra. For once, the voices, stage, orchestra pit and auditorium all seemed appropriate in size.

Being in two halves, the evening was robbed of an interval, saving some funds for both orchestra and perhaps some contract baby-sitters at home. I think Nozze should have two intermissions but I may be in the minority. I would also not be averse to more cuts in the longer scenes.

Hats off to the company for a great start to another year of grand opera in Sydney and Melbourne.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..