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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 ..