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09 September, 2008

Pedestrian Pearlfishers at Sydney Opera House.

The Pearlfishers. Georges Bizet. Sydney Opera House. Thursday, 4th September 2008

Zurga - Michael Lewis
Nadir - Henry Choo
Leila - Leanne Keneally
Nourabad - Shane Lawrencev
Conductor - Emmanuel Joel-Hornak
Director Ann-Margaret Pettersson
Sets - John Conkin

Dear Colleagues,
This Pearlfishers opening was passing pedestrian, never quite reaching ignition temperature in my view. In this engaging and original production Zurga is a British officer, living a flash-back.

Michael Lewis, an artist I admire enormously, seemed to be at his vocal limits on two occasions in the first act, yet his confident professionalism shone through. He is a veteran of three seasons since 2000 but by now the age difference with his on-stage tenor rival is showing.

Henry Choo managed the difficult tessitura of Nadir and his sense of drama made the role ‘work’.

Ms Kenneally also sang competently, even beautifully at times. She was ‘believable’, which is saying something in opera!

Shane Lawrencev played a fine Norabad.

Emmanuel Joel-Hornak conducts the present run - a lot of good music came from the Opera and Ballet orchestra. The chorus was also first rate.

The principal vocal performances would all have been considered grand as understudies but on the night, none really had that ‘star’ quality which is so easy to recognise but so hard to define. The ‘wow’ factor. It seems that Australian audiences are no longer offered ‘stars’ as often as we were in the past.

On looking at the last two outings of this opera in Sydney in my own diary I note further evidence of the depressing decline in standards of the opera company. Last time we heard up-and-coming American tenor Eric Cutler and previously David Miller as Nadir. The former went on the greater things (Chicago Lyric, Covent Garden, the Met, etc) and a recent guest return to Sydney. The latter joined the highly successful international ‘cross-over’ group Il Divo. Past conductors Patrick Summers and Richard Bonynge are both of vast international renown. This is not to denigrate any of the participants in the current 2008 run, but it reflects the company’s current policies of scaling back on international-quality guest artists.

Mr Joel-Hornak has a handsome conducting CV, making one or two fewer international-class artists in the opera on this occasion. The world of opera is a small one and dependable tenors are probably the rarest artists in practice.

The Sydney auditorium on Thursday was far from full with rear rows and side boxes all near empty, making it a marketing disaster. And it is bad for the performers too. Why were these seats not given to students, donors, ‘frequent flyers’ or others? Also bad for performers, I note that including the dress rehearsal, there will have been three performances within 5 days this week, a punishing schedule for any principal singer. The same happens later in the season with a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (matinee) marathon for the company. It seems that the bottom line is more important than caring for voices which normally requires at least two rest days between “big-sings”.

The opening night audience showed its satisfaction with a large ovation. This is gratifying, especially at a time when subscriptions are being renewed. However, as Nellie Melba knew, this does not prove much about technical and artistic standards (“Sing ‘em muck, it’s all they understand” she once wrote of the Australian audience). Yet one should never underestimate an audience, especially when so many in it could recall the heady ‘Sutherland years’.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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