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13 July, 2007

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

Die Entf├╝hrung 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 ..