Andrew's Opera was previously published at

25 February, 2008

Sydney Opera House: "Masked Ball" by Verdi

Un Ballo in Maschera, Sydney Opera House Gala

Wed 20th Feb 2008

KingDennis O’Neill
AnckestroemMichael Lewis
OscarNatalie Jones
UlricaBernadette Cullen
AmeliaNicole Youl
ConductorAndrea Licata
DirectorJohn Cox

Dear Colleagues,

This old production serves Verdi well yet it has some particularly odd ideas. The fortune teller arrives on the same throne as Gustavus, slightly camouflaged by some black silk on its second coming, and with orange electric ‘eyes’ (‘la sua pupilla’). The king reuses it for the patriotic chorus seeing out act I, scene 2. He had commanded the clothing of a fisherman and yet we find him in a sailor’s tunic, replete with brass buttons. What were they thinking?

But most of us go to the opera for the voices, so this is all small criticism when great things were happening vocally. The chorus and the tenor were the stars of this performance and they were well supported. Dennis O’Neill sang the difficult regal role with flair and aplomb - his voice seems to get more secure each passing year that we are fortunate to hear him in Sydney. Natalie Jones sounds a bit light-weight as the page, but her quick-fire response arias were accurate and effective. Nicole Youl was at her quite considerable limits as Amelia and this dramatic type of role seems to be an appropriate direction for her career currently.

Michael Lewis sang Anckestroem with his usual conviction, power and baritone beauty. He restored a few notes at the end of his first act aria and performed ‘Eri tu’ to a rousing ovation, richly deserved. With his wife playing Amelia we will have to be careful of the nickname “Mr and Mrs Opera”.

Bernadette Cullen is most comfortable in the roles of witches, bitches and sisters. Ulrica suits her range and she was suitable entranced as the fortune teller who is crucial to the plot. She interacted with the chorus superbly in her scene, singing her cauldron aria with gravitas. The chorus and their coach deserve particular commendation for their continued brilliant team work, providing the backing and framework needed for such fine quality opera to happen.

Andrea Licata conducted the superb Opera and Ballet Orchestra in a careful reading of this wonderful mature Verdi work. They received a chorus of ‘bravos’ from the audience in their traditional acknowledgement before the last act.

All in all a rich operatic experience, reminding us of how lucky we are to have such a professional company in Australia.

comments by Andrew Byrne ..

20 February, 2008

Joan Sutherland Society "A Summer Serenade". St Paul's, Burwood (and a correction).

"Summer Serenade" by the Joan Sutherland Society of Sydney

Sunday 17th Feb 2008 2pm

Dear Colleagues,

This group held their latest concert at St Paul’s Church in Burwood which was almost full to hear 8 singers accompanied by Sharolyn Kimmorley in a full bodied program. A facsimile program is attached.

Each item was a treat: from Handel, Mozart, Halevy, Verdi and Donizetti to the great verismo composers Puccini, Mascagni and Cilea.

Dame Joan Sutherland Society Feb 2008 Programme

I thought it was an excellent concert with Adam Player, Catherine Bouchier, Margaret Plummer, David Corcoran, Katherine Wiles, David Parkin and Valda Wilson all singing well in a challenging program. It is good to see Maria Pollicina back in Sydney … and she is in fine voice, receiving an excellent reception after each of her three pieces. Her Masked Ball Act III ‘Morro, ma prima ingrazia’ was strong, dramatic and full-blooded. I found her voice has become a little more mature and perhaps ‘taller’ in character. She was totally in control in this difficult aria, using tasteful pauses during which she connected with the audience, focuses the drama and ‘delivering’ in every desirable respect.

Of the others, my personal favourites were the Cardinal’s aria from La Juive sung by basso David Parkin (the ABC Oz Operatunity winner). He has a glorious deep, resonant voice which I hope to hear more of. He may need to connect with the drama a bit more at times, but a rare talent indeed. Equally commendable in the second half was tenor David Corcoran with ‘Recondita armonia’ from Tosca, sung to perfection. Other ‘church’ items after intermission included Ave Maria (Katherine Wiles) and the finale where all joined in a rousing Easter hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana, led by Maria Pollicina.

There were many current and retired singers in the audience including Lauris Elms who spoke at the start of the second half. She reminded us it was the birthday of Marjorie Lawrence, another great Australian singer. She had heard her in Melbourne as Amneris in Aida, singing from a wheelchair due to her polio paralysis. The brief address reminded us that singers are real people who suffer more than most the ups and downs of life, sentiments reflected in the Prologue from Pagliacci.

Correction from my last posting: Mr Joshua Bloom comes to the Toreador role from recent performances as Dandini in Cinderella. Mr Jose Carbo, another excellent but underutilised Australian baritone, sang Marcello in La Boheme. Apologies for my error.

Comments (and mistakes) by Andrew Byrne ..

19 February, 2008

Joshua Bloom blooms into Escamillo. Sydney Carmen update.

Sydney Opera House.

Wed 13 Feb

Dear Colleagues,

I don’t often write mid-season reviews but the new Escamillo in the Sydney Opera House Zambello production of Carmen deserves comment. Australian baritone Joshua Bloom replaces American Michael Todd Simpson as advertised (Catherine Carby replaces Ms Chavez from next week). Not since Raymond Myers have I heard such a good Toreador. This role is deceptively difficult, requiring high and low notes of power and projection. It also needs sustained acting skills. The role launches straight into on of the canon’s great pieces, ‘Votre toast … Toréador en garde’, all sitting on horse-back! (see the horse story below).

Having impressed as Dandini in Cinderella recently, it is nice to see that the opera company is giving Mr Bloom more challenging work. He sings the Toreador for the rest of the Carmen season(s). Ms Kirstin Chavez continues to impress as the gypsy femme fatale. She immerses herself into the role, interacting with just about everybody on the crowded stage. Her dancing, prancing and castanet use is dazzling.

I got to the opera house early to see the fine horses waiting by the stage door. Two identical horses of the deepest brown imaginable are in the most immaculate condition. Rather than one being an understudy in the event of the unexpected, it was explained that one is a specialist at ‘bowing’. This will be one of the enduring memories of the production - an equine curtsey curtain call!

I note that Mr Bloom is also performing this role in Melbourne - with mezzo Pamela Helen Stephen (wife of musical director Richard Hickox) as Carmen. The southern capital is also fortunate to have Julian Gavin as Gustavus in Masked Ball in April/May this year.

I fear that no telecast is being made of this excellent Carmen production. It would have an immediate prime time television audience both here and overseas. It appears that Covent Garden retains those rights – let’s hope they use them soon, and with a cast as good as this. Televising operas in Australia used to be done frequently and we have a legacy of Sydney Opera House performances from past decades but none of late for some reason. The technology is easier and probably cheaper and it is now possible to fill a cinema with such telecasts if they are of sufficient quality. Manon Lescaut is next from the Metropolitan, I believe.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

01 February, 2008

Carmen gala opening at Sydney Opera House - Chavez and Zambello wow them!

Sydney Opera House

24 Jan 2008

This Carmen is a smash hit with a big splash of colour, light, smoke, fabrics and, of course, music and quality vocalising.

American mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chavez is indeed the focus of the evening and she was unfaultable. She sang, danced and sexed her way to the ultimate lonely death scene outside the noisy Seville bullring. She did something I have never heard before and that was to ‘purr’ on stage even before we even heard her sing! And the oestrogen, adrenalin, steroids and every other hormone at peak levels, she stole the show, being worthy of all the publicity.

All the other characters also had their good points: Rosario La Spina sang beautifully as Don José despite being a more-than-imposing figure on stage. His flower song was perfection and the flower motif was used throughout the production at crucial times including sprinkled petals at the bloody finale.

Michael Todd Simpson looked good as the tall and handsome Toreador yet he had some vocal difficulties on opening night. He ‘curdled’ two high notes and had inadequate low notes for this difficult aria. It seems odd that no Australian was chosen for this role, a deceptively difficult one for the baritone voice.

Sarah Crane was a suitably homely Micaela with a large if undistinguished voice.

The movable set used deep ochre colours with stylised ramparts and fenestrations reminiscent of Federation Square, cut down to ‘village square’ proportions. A large, laden orange tree would have looked even better had it not been for a slight wobble. There was a donkey at the rear of the set in Act I and the bullfighter arrived on horseback in Act II. At one stage there was a real hen clucking on stage, completing the animal ‘unities’. The production overall is most original and gratifying … and it is remarkable what can be done on this small, cramped stage. Francesca Zambello’s genius takes some extraordinary detail from the story into her brilliant production.

The costumes were lush ‘Victorian Iberian’. From smart military uniforms to rag-clad children, all were appropriate and tasteful.

The tempi under Maestro Hickox were excellent with the overture taken at a cracking pace while the famous arias were taken a little slower than is usual, but with good effect. The orchestra sounded marvellous with the prominent brass sections (some on-stage) being accurate and substantial.

While Carmen is not my favourite opera, it is the world’s most favourite opera and this production should bring in the crowds for many seasons to come.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..