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30 April, 2008

Edgar at Carnegie Hall.

Edgar - Puccini - 8pm Sun 13th April 2008 Carnegie Hall, Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY).

Dear Colleagues,

We were privileged to hear this excellent early opera of Maestro Puccini with a superb orchestra, chorus and principal singers. Eve Queller has reached 35 years in her remarkable campaign to bring rare works to the public at a high standard.

Mr Giordani in the title role was in spectacular form and took all the hard options successfully as in the final performances of Ernani at the Met recently. He is an artist who sometimes seems to sound better in the theatre than on broadcasts. Latonia Moore as Fidelia showed a magnificent crystal pure yet rich soprano to rapturous applause in an almost-full Carnegie Hall. Jennifer Larmore also sang extremely well but somehow never reached ‘goose bump’ level. As “Frank”, Stephen Gaertner’s baritone voice proved to be equal to anything. High, low, loud, soft he was expressive and effective. The adult chorus was magnificent while the Catholic school children’s chorus seemed rag-tag.

The work is a splendid opera, and far superior to many 20 century “operas” in my view. The story is certainly original and leads to plenty of dramatic situations including a resurrection on stage! It is balanced by some real corpses before the end. Like his early Messa there is melody, orchestral invention and balance. The arias are original and choruses fitting and exciting dramatically. There is hardly any melody reminiscent of his other works but perhaps some orchestration from Manon Lescaut to my hearing.

I hope a recording is released of this performance and that this opera is given its proper place in the repertoire of serious opera companies.

Andrew Byrne .. (Also seen/heard The Gambler; Fanciulla del West; Candide – notes on request).

22 April, 2008

La Fille du Regiment. Met magic this evening. Brief notes.

Donizetti. Metropolitan Opera New York City. Monday 21st April 2008.

Dear Colleagues,

This was indeed a night of nights. The company has pulled out all the stops and provided high class comic opera without rival. In a French-inspired ‘geographic’ alpine production coming via London and Vienna this opera was raised from the relatively superficial to a level equal to anything the Met has done in my experience. For one thing, a rare encore was performed by Mr Florez (‘Ah mes amis’). This turned the already incredible 9 high C’s into 18. And none was clipped or insubstantial. A colossal effort! He then received one of the few spontaneous standing ovations I have seen at the Met (a colleague said it was the only spontaneous standing ovation he had seen in over 50 years of Met openings).

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez is the darling of the opera world at present and has gone from strength to strength on the world stage adding Olympian records to his repertoire. These include the extra scene in Barbiere di Siviglia (others have attempted it but few succeeded so comprehensively). He sang, danced and acted his way into the hearts (and pockets) of the elite of New York, many of whom had paid over five hundred dollars for dinner, supper and premium tickets. His act 2 pleading aria was taken as slowly as I have heard it – moving, legato and effective dramatically, quite the opposite of the ‘rapid-fire’ act 1 aria with all the high C’s.

And he was in good company with the quirky and attractive Natalie Dessay as well as a fine natural comedy man, Alessandro Corbelli as Suplice the sergeant major. He sang Gianni Schicchi last year with great acclaim. Famous actress Marian Seldes played the Duchess of Crackenthorp with great aplomb. She was in Deuce last year with Angela Lansbury.

At the end there was a phenomenal ovation. The crowds screamed for Florez. Each time he took a bow it sounded like the stadium roaring over goals. This may be the most exciting opera performance I have seen since the Sutherland days.

It should be on the front pages of the papers, not buried in the entertainment section! [and it was!]

Andrew Byrne .. 1922 review of Toti dal Monti in the opera:

Fille du Regiment rehearsal Friday open-day' at the Met

Fille du Regiment rehearsal - Friday open-day at the Met. 11am Friday 18th April 2008

This was another successful demonstration of the Gelb Dynasty way of doing business at the Met. Following an advertisement in the New York Post, I called by phone (internet was unresponsive) at the appointed hour the previous Sunday, and eventually got thru after 20 minutes of trying. We secured two free tickets in the Grand Tier, as did our friends. We all did as we were told and arrived an hour early to view some displays in the main foyer involving costumes, house organisation, special effects, lighting, scenery painting and stage modelling. These displays were all original and interesting … remote controlled revolving spotlights, on-stage illuminated handbags for Macbeth, understudy’s costumes, flaming sword, stage models (‘maquette’ is the trade term I am told), smoke making machine, etc.

I asked each representative in turn about the worst disaster in their department - with some startling responses. The special effects man had designed an exploding book for the end of Faust but one night he accidentally stapled the wires together and it refused to ignite at the crucial time. This was highly embarrassing for the performer so a large ’grovel’ was called for.

The costume lady had a very sad tale involving the death on stage of Richard Versalle (January 1996 - Makropoulos Secret). They required a new costume for his understudy for the very next performance (it was not clear if this was due to the singer’s size, respect for the dead or if the original was damaged in resuscitation attempts). After two full days of sewing over a cold weekend, the next performance was also cancelled - this time due to a massive blizzard which shut down the entire US east coast.

I had two disasters recounted by the sets representative. The new Madama Butterfly design had a huge wall of dangling flowers which were rolled up after the first night. When unrolling them for the second performance it was found that they had all stuck together and it took a Herculean effort of every available pair of hands in the building to separate the mass of rolled up flowers, strand by strand to help get the disentanglement sorted before curtain time.

In another disaster there was a scrim across the stage in an opera which ripped right across as it was being taken out. Apparently these scrims have heavy balance weights on each side to stop them wrinkling but these obviously are meant to be removed before raising the delicate fabric. The weights were left in place on this occasion and the curtain predictably ripped right across its top section. As there was another performance in a few days’ time a careful sewing job was needed to first cut the break cleanly on both sides and then resuture the smooth edges with invisible thread in time. Fortunately there was only a small strip lost and enough spare to use the same scrim. A replacement at such short notice would not have been possible.

The sets person explained about the loss of an expensive stage model which had been left in a box which was taken accidentally for trash. These models can take two of three people a number of weeks to make up and so such a loss would have been a calamity. The box was on board the trash truck some blocks away from Lincoln Center before it was stopped and the model retrieved intact for posterity. One of these very models was on show representing the three overlaid maps making the set and three mountains behind the Fille du Regiment design.

It is not appropriate to comment on a rehearsal so suffice it to say that honour was satisfied and the Monday Gala opening should be a swish event mirroring the London success of this production with practically the same cast from a year or more ago.

After the performance the (exhausted) singers, actors, conductor and production team sat on the Act 2 set and were interviewed by Margaret Junthwaite. We were given lots of insights into geography (hint), comedy, acting, stagecraft and other matters.

All in all a real treat for us out-of-towners – and locals alike. I am very grateful for having been able to attend this splendid event. It has got to be good for public relations and would have cost the company little or nothing since there were some generous sponsors named who defrayed the additional expenses over a closed rehearsal.

Andrew Byrne ..
Travel log:

19 April, 2008

Masked Ball at the Met. April 19.

Saturday 19th April 2008

Ballo in Maschera. Metropolitan Opera, New York City.

King: Salvatore Licitra
Amelia: Angela Brown
Ulrica: Stephanie Blythe
Renato: Dmitry Hvorostovsky
Oscar: Ofelia Sala
cond: Gianandrea Noseda

Dear Colleagues,

Another marvellous Ballo outing at the Met. I have seen this production several times as well as its classic video with Pavarotti, Millo and Nucci. This evening had a dream cast of Salvatore Licitra, Angela Brown, Stephanie Blythe and Dmitry Hvorostovsky. Also, the Oscar of Ofelia Sala was a fine performance.

As the king, Mr Licitra was almost eclipsed by the finesse of the baritone and lead soprano. Both baritone arias were sung with such intense conviction that at times in Eri tu Hvorostovsky seemed to move out of the aria itself, taking pauses and extensions which, while not written (and could not reasonably have been written), were perfectly attuned to the character of the piece. He also interpolated some notes from the traditional versions. The conductor seemed to take some of the main arias very slowly, to great advantage with such fine artists.

Remarkably Ms Brown did a similar thing with her Act 3 aria Morro ma prima ingrazia with some incredibly beautiful phrasing at the end. I only recall hearing this effect once before with Sherril Milnes as papa Germont also here at the Met almost 20 years ago in Di provenza (and taken to an extreme on film with Jose van Damm at the end of Cortigiani). Neither Pavarotti nor Sutherland ever did this, at least not for me. I think the singer has to get wholly within the characterisation before doing this … and obviously needs to be in complete control vocally.
Despite being almost midnight, the acclaim at the end of Ballo, was rapturous. The production is over-the-top and final ball scene unbelievably detailed, large, colourful and yet still sympathetic to the story. It even has a ‘play within’ and its own on-stage audience.

This performance was well above the usual standard seen here (or anywhere). Two members of the Australian Opera were also in the audience and they were also impressed by proceedings. We noted, however, some minor pitching errors of the tenor and some repeated timing problems with the conductor. His musicality may not be quite as refined as his colleagues yet Mr Licitra has a formidable and beautiful instrument and being able to ‘deliver’ as well as or better than many others in his field.

The day before, we were treated to an ‘open-house’ at the Met, incorporating a dress rehearsal of the Fille du Regiment (see my web site for full details). Already I have received responses about each item posted on some enthusiast opera list-servers. Some replies are not for the faint-hearted. But at least a lot of people read one’s messages and any obvious mistakes are pointed out, sometimes politely, otherwise tersely, allowing me to live and learn while also enjoying the opera. This is a form of cheap and quick ‘peer-review’. One learns to ignore the rudeness as being insecurity of people who often have nothing better to do than ‘kvetch’. Sharing ‘diary notes’ publicly is all a matter of timing … too early and they are incomplete or inaccurate … too late and nobody is interested!

Best wishes to all from Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

12 April, 2008

Ernani - Verdi - Metropolitan Opera New York.

Thursday 10th April 2008 7.30pm.

Ernani - Marcello Giordani
Elvira - Sondra Radvanovsky
Don Carlo - Thomas Hampson
de Silva - Ferruccio Furlanetto
Conductor - Roberto Abbado

Dear Colleagues,

The Met web site calls this opera a ‘gem’ yet this is being kind. While it has some of the most magnificent arias and choruses, the story is a mish mash of not just unlikely but ludicrous events, underlined by the theme ‘a slave of duty’ like the Pirates of Penzance, but without the humour. Both hero (a bandit) and villain (a nobleman) are bound by such serious personal honour that they would die before allowing themselves even a minor transgression of “the gentleman’s code”. A suspicious suitor turns out to be the king incognito while a pilgrim who arrives at a wedding turns out to be a rival who nobody happens to recognise before allowing him into the castle for alms and refuge.

Two glorious scenes occur in the first 20 minutes and one wonders if there could be anything else (there is!). Ernani sings of his lost love and his henchmen sing of their devotion and willingness to fight to get her back. They are standing on and below a large curving stairway around what looks like an open-cut coal seam as their brigands’ hide-out. Next scene is Elvira’s ‘Surte e la notte’, ‘Ernani, Ernani involarmi’ and ‘Tutto sprezzo’. Sondra Radvanovsky sang superbly and took all the hard options. This takes place in a massive palace room where she is confined. Massive drapes on an unseen window are billowing in the breeze reminding us of the great outdoors she is longing for. She sings part of her scene sitting on a sofa on the right side and moves around the stage as her thoughts progress.

The tenor has a major challenge in Act 2. ‘Odi il voto o grande Iddio’ has elements of ‘Ah la paterna mano’ from Macbeth as well as hints at ‘Ah si ben mio’. Next Ernani launches into a chorus ending with a ‘Di quella pira’ style cabletta, ‘Sprezzo la vita, ne piĆ¹ m'alletta’ ending the act on a magnificent ‘high’ combining ‘vendetta’ and true love. Mr Giordani’s performance was exciting and accurate in the theatre.

This makes two choruses swearing allegiance to their leaders and it appears that the whole opera revolves around keeping one’s oath and observation gentleman’s accepted codes of conduct. Other more personal things such as self, family, king and country are all subordinate to the ‘codes’ espoused here. Even to the point of ‘honour suicide’ on demand on one’s wedding day.

Anyone in these roles now has the inevitable comparison with the Met DVD of this production (with Pavarotti, Milnes, Mitchell and Raimondi). In this, Milnes ends his Act 3 ‘Oh de verd’anni miei’ with an almost unbelievable, ringing high A flat, sustained for over 5 seconds, sending the audience wild.

Mr Hampson sang with conviction and confidence as King Carlos. In the act 3 aria’s conclusion he touched uneasily on a high G in an otherwise ringing and exciting performance, finishing (correctly) on the lower A flat.

Ferrucio Furlanetto was excellent as the nobleman de Silva. His voice is warm and secure. He received a large ovation, as did all the other singers and conductor.

The finale sees the happiest scene turn ugly with the newly married Ernani hearing the horn-call of de Silva on whose sound he had promised to commit suicide ‘on that day’. He bids farewell to Elvira and stabs himself after which da Silva uses the same dagger to slash the bride’s throat giving us an extra corpse for the final curtain. This was not done in the original production and seems like a gratuitous excess to me. In a concert version of this final trio done by Sutherland and Pavarotti the bass-baritone role was played by Marilyn Horne, proving her versatility. It was splendid, unlike the full recording which was under-par in some respects, especially Sutherland’s worrying wobble by that time in her glorious career.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Satyagraha at the Met Monday 14th April 2008.

Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Satyagraha. Travesty and con-job in my estimation.

Richard Croft, Bradley Garvin, Richard Bernstein, Rachelle Durkin, Ellie Dehn, Maria Zifchak. Conductor Dante Anzolini.

Dear Colleagues,
The Met has let us down badly with this ‘opera’ entitled Satyagraha. They have stated in various places that subtitles are available to all their operas – yet this was apparently an exception with major disadvantages for all involved. Because it was sung in an Indian dialect the entire opera was incomprehensible to most of us. A recent religious movie was made in Aramaic but subtitles kept viewers abreast of events. The only distant benefit was to remind us how much we missed before titles were introduced.

My opera notes are normally written from my experience in the theatre. Since the advent of titles I have made a point of not researching operas before seeing them in most cases. In fact I have not purchased a program for many years, preferring to use books, musical scores, CD booklets and even Google for my references ‘after the fact’. This has enabled me to form an impression from the work itself and not from various explanations from directors, designers, composers and (worst of all) opera managements. Since this is a great story of a great man, it is a shame I still have little idea of what it is about. I am still not certain how to pronounce the title. I missed ‘Gandhi’ the motion picture, but those who had seen it clearly were able to enjoy the opera better for the experience.

The ‘music’ of Satyagraha is nothing if not repetitive. All composers repeat their music yet this must break all bounds for cutting and pasting in music. One single semi-quaver note on the word ‘ha’ was sung 80 times at one stage - I was so bored that I started counting, like sheep in the night! And this monotony went on for what seemed like 20 minutes: ‘ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha’ 8, 16, 32 or more times in half or quarter notes separated by arpeggios of 4 crochets. If this is a useful, pleasant or beautiful musical device, and I am not sure that it is, then only a mighty ego in a composer could think that repeating it with only the slightest chromatic modulations over 100 times would be musical, tasteful or indeed, tolerable. I found it boring and unimaginative. Many patrons near me slept during much of the performance. If the words were of profound wisdom poetry then they were lost on most listeners. Occasional large projections which could only be read by those in the center of the theater gave little indication of events and some were in poor English translations (eg. ‘very excellent’).

Yet for boring repetition (and there was lots and lots of that) it would be hard to beat the final 15 minutes in which Gandhi, played by Richard Croft, repeats the same brief Sanskrit phrase on the same rising melodic minor scale of 8 notes what seems like 35 times in a very slow tempo. Mr Croft has a beautiful voice and while it is a pleasure to behold, after attending a 3 hour master class last week it was hard not to analyse. In this ‘scritto’ repetition, the ‘gear change’ occurred variably in the last 1, 2 or sometimes 3 notes. Males have head and chest voices, just like females, although it may not be talked about as much. Hence boring music became a singing lesson of sorts, and this is not a criticism of Mr Croft, just of Philip Glass and his poverty of invention. Speaking of which, one repeated motif I recognised from Cavalleria Rusticana, note for note. And that was repeated at least 3 times for me to be sure. No problem with that, it is just a shame that there was no development of the motif from that point, nor more interesting ‘borrowings‘ to balance the ‘machinery’ noise from the pit. I was reminded of the below-deck scene on “The Ship Sails On” where the famous singer competes with the steam turbines of an ocean liner. Doubtless some enjoy this sort of music which I personally consider a slow torture.

The other singers, chorus and orchestra should all be commended for accurate production of a work with so many alien features (a whole scene in act 1 appeared to be in 7/4 time!!). I think Rachel Durkin as Gandi’s assistant received the biggest applause apart from Croft himself.

The end came close to midnight and remarkably, many patrons remained in the expensive seats. A friend who sat in the Family Circle said that there was an exodus after the second intermission as people gave up on the work after a decent hearing of 2 acts. Neither had as much as an aria, a poem or a beautiful tableau from the stage. I had hoped for some particular high point in honour of the great man of the story.

The orchestration relied heavily on an electric organ which was quite overpowering at times, even against perhaps a half sized Met orchestra. Sometimes the tempi were extremely fast, other times embarrassingly slow. Much of the action on stage was in apparent slow motion. Again, if this is a clever device (and I am sure it can be) it can also be over-done and as with much we witnessed in the theater during the opera, excessive repetition was the order of proceedings.

On the other hand, the production was one of the most extraordinary and original I have seen in my life. Yet much of it was hard to connect with the life and times of the great man. Much was clearly drawing attention to the originators themselves more than to their story-telling skills. There were huge puppets operated by wires and rods; twice people are taken off stage via a ‘sky wire’ for no apparent purpose; alcoves in the massive curved corrugated iron set had inane household things going on as people climbed, or were pushed in or out. In one chorus scene variously dressed members all removed their outer garment as three rows of coat-hangers on chains were lowered from the fly level. It was bizarre as several dozen items had made their way from a dark wardrobe to grace the upper levels of the Metropolitan stage, the symbolism, beauty or utility of which was lost on me and others I spoke to.

Much of the story line depended on newspaper clippings which I learned later were emphasising this important means of communication for the resistance movement in South Africa. A Google search reveals that Satyagraha means nothing more than ‘non-violent resistance’. I still do not know how much if any of the story involved India. While there were dates from the late 1800’s to the 1920s there was no clear indication of what was going on. The entire floor of the Met stage was made up of glazed old newspapers (although they were in colour which seemed incongruous).

Another crazy scene saw about twenty minutes taken up with a slow motion chorus as one character after another rolled out cello-tape across the stage, each at a particular level and all horizontal. The result was a series of taught tape ties across the stage. These were snipped, cut, bundled and jettisoned, again to no particular effect … except to wonder what the director had in mind with this odd waste. In another scene a circular section was cut out of the floor, attached to a wire and flown off to the top of the stage accompanied by a stunt person - to no particular effect. Except that it did leave a fire at center stage into which each chorus member one by one monotonously threw what I learned later were Government ID cards (like Draft Card burnings in the US). This may have been the only meaningful part of the whole production, yet I missed it in the theater.

The act 1 puppets appeared to be made up of screwed up paper which was immensely clever artistically if over-my-head dramatically. Those used in act 2 were quite different and formed a hounding or herding band around the protagonist. The tallest could easily have passed for Fassolt of Fafner in the Ring. The others took the form of huge expressive Dickensian characters operated by rods, each with its own unusual anatomical features. Once again, I am not sure what it all meant, then or now.

All in all a disappointing night at the theater.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

Marilyn Horne Master Class in New York.

Manhattan School of Music: Voice Master Class with Marilyn Horne.

9th April 2008

Marilyn Horne held a free Master Class which was the culmination of two weeks of intensive coaching for 9 singers and their accompanists at the Manhattan School of Music, 122nd Street on Broadway. The event was open to the public free of charge, yet the Borden Auditorium was only about three quarters full. The evening ran from 7 to 10pm.

Ms Horne looked abundantly well in a brightly coloured outfit, seated for most of the evening at a desk on the stage opposite a black grand piano and music stand (which nobody actually used). The program notes stated that she had her 70th birthday in 2004.

Nine advanced vocal students appeared to be in their mid to late twenties … with almost as many piano accompanists. All were of highest calibre and indeed each would deserve a review in his/her own right … yet this would be unfair as we were not attending a performance, as Ms Horne stressed, but a coaching session. The first chose to sing Delilah’s first act aria which was splendid, as was the second who sang ‘I hear an army’, words by James Joyce and music by Samuel Barber. Ms Horne made a remark about the small number of Joyce books she had read. She also stopped and started the singers at various points, each clearly explained - sometimes with dramatic changes in the vocal results.

We heard sing Ah ichs fuhls; Baby Doe male aria; Delilah’s act 1 aria; Doppelganger; Fiesco’s first act aria; ‘I hear an army’; Oh mio Fernando (sung in Italian); Porgi amor; Spanish song: ‘El e muerte’.

Her commentary and banter throughout was pleasant and relaxing for everyone, without being in any way self-centred or tedious. She has something interesting and pertinent to say about just about everything – including the spring trees, bushes and bulbs lining Broadway on the way up to Columbia which all revealed spring to be the season she awaits with most impatience. This was in direct reference to the mention of ‘printemps’ and the mood needed for the phrase.
Ms Horne used many singing terms, as did her students, explaining the less familiar ones to those of us attending who were not trained or training in the voice. She talked about tempi, diaphragm, palate, jaw, breathing, nasal, head and chest voices, pitch, volume, dynamic, balance, technique, learning, speaking voice and lip movements. All made abundant sense at the time, but getting it altogether clearly takes a long period of intense training.

On several occasions Ms Horne pointed both extended index fingers laterally at her own cheek bones, raised her nose and upper lip slightly, while also making a gesture with her back and body. The latter was to indicate the “support” needed for each note from the diaphragm and everything below it (some say the heels are the most important!). The facial focus was to demonstrate the need to keep the ‘air flowing’ and the voice production up in the ‘resonant passages’.

She emphasised the wisdom of just following the enunciation of the words of any song, avoiding the temptation to force the lips and jaw into unnatural positions (especially sidewards), inevitably affecting the sound. I was a little surprised that there was no mention of trills or other ornaments. She did, however, emphasise the importance of a proper Italianate rolled ‘r’ sound which some of the singers had neglected.

Each singer began by singing their chosen number right through (or trying to). Ms Horne would then read out several pertinent points about the performance using some praise for the good parts and then going into detail about the parts she felt needed attention. These sections were repeated, sometimes up to 5 times and for the listening audience the difference was often dramatic and obvious. On other occasions the improvements seemed more obvious to the experts (and there were many of them present). One singer started with an obvious nasal sound, making one wonder if it had all been worthwhile. Ms Horne recognised the problem within seconds. She stopped the candidate and suggested that nerves had made them pout their lips (or some other labial contortion) which, when remedied, immediately yielded a most beautiful resonant sound, not in the least bit ‘nasal’.

On many occasions she pointed up the need to get the vowels correctly phonated. She quoted Ebi Stignani, ‘possibly the greatest mezzo-soprano who ever lived’ who called the ‘a’ vowel the ‘terrible’ vowel (in Italian). Apparently she often just turned it into an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ when singing to avoid the problem on high notes! We were all told about the need for a clean, accurate start to any song and several of the candidates demonstrated with false or weak starts. Another gripe only brought up on two occasions in the whole evening was not singing exactly what was written in the music. We were reminded of dotted notes and double-dotted notes, as well as those with half or quarter measures, triplets, couplets, syncopated starts and the like. It made one realise just how much effort must have already gone into each aria prior to the Master Class.

At one point Ms Horne said that the soprano in question had to pretend to be a tenor for a particular stressed phrase. She then demonstrated by imitating a tenor in full flight – using her completely intact mezzo voice – bringing the room to stitches of laughter. She sang many lines, notes, phrases and noises in full voice to demonstrate points to the candidates. On the subject of singers in full flight, she recommended The Gambler at the Met where she said cheap or even free seats might be available. She said that Vladimir Galouzine is one tenor today who has the staying power and beauty of voice she has not seen since the days of Gedda and Del Monaco. I had attended the same Gambler performance but without the same positive sentiments. I thought it was musically and dramatically woeful yet the stage design is most original and engaging (and would be ideal for a new Don Giovanni in my view).

There was much humour during the evening. Often her comments on and interactions with the singers were hilarious, sometimes just from unfamiliarity or surprise events: from clenched buttock muscles to ‘wiggles’ (“DON’T call them wobbles” she said – implying, however, that they mean the same thing). As the last singer presented her music to Ms Horne she opened to the wrong page and started to sing out loud Urbain’s first act aria from Les Huguenots, saying “I know this one!” “Non, non non non non non …”.

The last was the best performance to my ears and I made a point of going up to the elegant young lady who had been grilled by Ms Horne in detail thru the long recitative, aria and cabaletta. In particular, she pointed out that this young woman had a huge and natural chest voice and so, unlike others, she had to concentrate on emphasising and broadening her head register to ensure long life of her ‘instrument’. Ms Horne even asked her what note her register changed and the singer insisted that she never thought of things like that. Yet it seemed from what Ms Horne made her then do this ‘gear change’ at several notes lower, keeping the legato of certain phrases in the Donizetti. The cabaletta ‘Scritto e in ciel, il mio dolor’ was spectacular with the final notes nailed perfectly. Goose bumps all round!

Ms Horne gave several personal insights into the various roles. She said that the big aria is the major test for the role of Pamina in Magic Flute. She had never sung it herself due to the difficulties of the aria, although she had sung ‘Porgi amor’ from Nozze. She made the intriguing comment that Charles Mackerras had told her that he had found some evidence that ‘Ach ich fuhls’ should be sung much faster than traditionally done nowadays (he has also promoted some apparently authentic ornamentation for some Mozart gems). While she was not ‘ready’ for a fully andante version of this aria, she believed that the tempo should not lag, lest it make the aria more difficult to sing as well as less appealing in its purpose in the opera as Pamina shows her grief. Ms Horne said that she had done Italian roles in her ‘soprano days’ and very usually ‘auf Deutsch’.

Most bass students of hers rated Cesare Siepi as their favourite and this included the present candidate playing Fiesco from Simon Boccanegra. She said this was because of Siepi’s ability to stick strictly to the legato line. We were told that this aria is known in some quarters as the ‘National Anthem’ for basses. Ms Horne pointed out that this student had the ‘dollar notes’ (meaning the lowest) and now needed to attend certain other parts of his production, which he followed carefully with excellent results. Individual story lines of each of the songs and arias were emphasised in detail, including the Spanish song (grief, suicidal thoughts) and Doppelganger (shock at seeing one’s own reflection ringing hands in anguish).

I spoke to Ms Horne briefly after the master class to compliment her on her marvellous work with the young artists. She was delightful, even with a crusty gent who accosted her with a pile of old 33 RPM records for her to sign!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

07 April, 2008

La Boheme on the big screen - an Australian view from inside the theatre.

Matinee Sat 5th April 2008

La Boheme with Gheorghiu/Vargas. Puccini. 1.30pm Sat 5th April 2008.

Dear Colleagues,

This was a marvellous example of the hundreds of outings of this Zeffirelli production beamed out to the cinema screens and radio stations across the world. I may see it on the wide screen or DVD some day but it was certainly interesting to see such an opera in the theatre itself. As the curtain rose on each setting there was applause which now seems inevitable … as one is transported to the attic garret, bustling inner Paris or its outskirts. There seemed to be more people than ever on stage at the start of act 2.

Two minor accidents occurred: in the first, two round hat boxes bounced off a cart in the Momus scene, one ending up in the orchestra pit. It appeared to be light and probably caused no damage as one orchestra member passed it to the 'rear' of the deep Met pit. Musetta and her consort arrived in a Surrey drawn by a donkey which seems to have had an incident on the stage left which was quickly cleaned up by a black cloaked stage hand or chorus member as the action moved to the right. The poor animal was only on stage for less than a minute!

From the rear orchestra stalls seats it was somewhat disconcerting to have six cameras in one's lateral field of view throughout the performance (and another two behind). Two of them were on long roving rods which were constantly raised and lowered from long telescopic booms originating in the front lowest box on each side. There was also one remote-controlled camera which rolled constantly from side to side on a track above the footlights (and just above the height of the prompter's box). Some of the cameras were actually in the orchestra seating so that a small number of patrons must have been distracted and I imagine those adjacent would have been compensated in some way by the Met.

The cameras were a reminder of the immediacy of this performance going out to the world on digital high definition and high fidelity audio. Opera is always like walking a 'tight-rope’ and live filming raises the tension, stakes and risk levels greatly.

The lovers Ramon Vargas and Angela Gheorghiu sang superbly as radio and cinema audiences can judge for themselves. While they are well known to opera goers the world over, the rest of the strong cast and conductor were all unknown to me until this performance (except the ubiquitous veteran Paul Plishka who ‘played Paul Plishka’ as rent collector and Alcindoro). Ludovic Tezier as Marcello; Oren Gradus as Colline; Quinn Kelsey as Schaunard; Ainhoa Arterta as Musetta. Conductor Nicola Luisotti directed the orchestra in a score they must all know by heart. He kept the pace lively and happily did not try to put his own ‘stamp’ on this opera gem.

I hope others enjoyed the performance as much as I did. I personally disapprove of Vargas going up to the high note for the finale of Act I off-stage, but no further correspondence will be entered into on this subject. OK, he did it. It was accurate, if somewhat shortened. It was not beautiful, while the soprano could have sung for much longer (as could Vargas) if using the notes come scritto by Puccini. One correspondent thought it was taken down a semitone but I left my tuning fork at home for fear of setting off metal detectors.

Lots more to say (elsewhere) about the other principals who all sang brilliantly.

The intermission quiz was great fun (for once only half full), taking place in the theatrette in the Met basement on OP side of the stage. It was hosted by bass Justino Diaz who was well humoured and knowledgeable. We saw bits and pieces of Ms Fleming interviewing the cast backstage, yet another imposition of this modern exercise of televising performances. The principals, (tenor especially) are on stage for much of the opera and now they are expect to give interviews in the brief intermissions! We were told that the libretto of Boheme contains mention of 20 animals and the panellists were asked to name as many as they could. The ran out after beaver, salmon and a couple of others given hints and in desperation the audience was asked to help. A voice recognition question had 4 basses doing a few bars from the coat song (they could have used Caruso but chose Ezio Pinza). The pianist played some music representing cold scenes from Arabella, Mazappa, Fanciulla and others.

I can recommend the new arrangements for obtaining returned tickets on the day of the performance by using the Met internet booking site. But you need to log on at exactly 10am for best results. This means that one can be almost certain of getting tickets in some reserve or other (even if only standing room, of which over 100 are sold ONLY on the day of the performance).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

05 April, 2008

Falstaff – Giuseppe Verdi. Wednesday April 2 2009 7.30pm

New York City Opera. Lincoln Center.

April 2 2008

Falstaff – Ian Opalach
Meg – Heather Johnson
Alice – Pamela Armstrong
Quickly – Ursula Ferri
Nannetta – Anna Skibinsky
Fenton – John Tessier
Ford – Timothy Mix
c. George Manahan

Dear Colleagues,

This is a sympathetic production of a unique comic opera involving the twin genius of Shakespeare and Verdi … and one of my favourite works.

The production was simple yet effective, starting with two huge angled white panels forming the walls of our knight’s lodgings as he demanded food and wine while hatching his plot to seduce not one but two local Windsor women. Ian Opalach played Falstaff well, never losing the buffoonery, constant self-confidence and double deflated comeuppance episodes, lastly in the winter snow after midnight. The ‘honour’ monologue was excellent, as was the shorter and less known ‘ode to sherry’.

The rest of the cast were all of equally high calibre and well matched. The young lovers were particularly effective, tenor John Tessier and his Nannetta Anna Skibinsky, whose act 3 ‘aria’ was splendid. The final fugue was the high point it was meant to be (‘Tutto nel mondo e burla’). It is a nice change to end an opera without bodies or blood on stage!

The huge and ‘clunky’ State Theater was 90% full and their audio-enhancement system worked well. All singers could be heard well and without any noticeable amplification, feed-back, etc.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..