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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 ..