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28 January, 2009

The Magic Flute. Sydney Opera House. Thursday 22nd Jan 2009. Don't miss it!

The Magic Flute. Sydney Opera House. 7.30pm Thursday 22nd Jan 2009.

Dear Colleagues,

This David Freeman production is a smash hit for the Sydney Summer Festival and I recommend everyone should consider getting a ticket if they like that sort of thing or if they are new to Flute. Don’t be put off by the price since tickets are freely available from $42 mid-week … in restricted view positions in the middle loges - Y / B which were empty on opening night. While I find this opera (or ‘singspiel’ more correctly) has long dull patches, it is still a favourite with audiences down the ages. And it contains some of the most glorious arias ever written, linked as they are by a somewhat tiresome text akin to a pantomime or moral play. Glyndebourne had the right idea 20 years ago by cutting all the talking!

My comments are incomplete as I had to leave shortly after the second Queen of Night’s aria - which was brilliantly sung by Emma Pearson. She was indeed a splendid Queen of Night in every respect. After her stratospheric second aria she received a roar of cheers and acclaim from the audience. Her vocal and dramatic performance had been dazzling indeed - including her first act O zittre nicht which was sung sitting in an oversized alabaster illuminated quarter moon suspended by wires high above the stage. She deserves risk money!

Daniel Sumegi as Sarastro sings the haunting In diesen heil'gen Hallen which has some of the lowest notes written. The previous aria had the highest! Mozart must have been a mean machine … or else he disliked singers!

It seemed curious that Emma Matthews was playing Pamina again since she is so ideally suited to the great coloratura roles like Lucia. Marilyn Horne said in a master class that once a soprano had the fiendishly difficult Ach! Ich fuhls ‘in the voice’, the rest of this role was a ‘walk-over’. Matthews’ Konstanze in Seraglio two years ago was excellent and perfectly suited to her remarkably agile voice. She could also sing the Queen of Night I imagine.

Warwick Fyfe as the bird man was a bit ‘rough and ready’ and the dialogue he was given sounded ‘Ocker’ and even embarrassing at times. He even came on stage with his personal barbecue and tinnies. And he has a large voice and sings in tune.

Kanen Breen was Monostatos and this is possibly the best thing I have seen/heard him do. And his mostly original dialogue, being quite poignant with the new white house incumbent this past week. Stephen Bennett is back as an excellent Masonic mentor, as was his priestly partner in Graham MacFarlane.

Mr Goodwin makes a fine Tamino, a difficult role somewhere between cantor singing and performing in a radio play. The high point for me is the famous portrait aria.

Ollivier-Phillipe Cuneo conducted confidently and the brass players did themselves proud on this occasion.

The clever and quirky production looks to be set in the Amazon jungle … vines and unexpected animals/birds everywhere in dark shadows. Other sections seem to take place in a giant pietra dura jewel box. As valid as any other interpretation, I suppose, considering it is a fantasy work … and Schikaneder would probably be delighted (the impresario also played Papageno at the opening). It is amazing to know that this was written in the same period as La Clemenza di Tito in the final months of Mozart’s short but productive life.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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15 January, 2009

Cav and Pag compete favourably with Sydney Festival.

Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci at the Sydney Opera House Sat 10th Jan 2009

Cavalleria Rusticana - Mascagni
Turiddù - Dennis O’Neill
Santuzza - Nicole Youl
Mama Lucia - Jaqueline Dark
Alfio - Jonathan Summers
Lola - Domenica Matthews

I Pagliacci - Leoncavallo
Tonio - Jonathan Summers
Canio - Dennis O’Neill
Nedda - Amelia Farrugia
Peppe - Stephen Smith
Silvio - José Carbo
Directed by Andrew Sinclair
Sets by Shaun Gurton
Conductor Andrea Licata

Dear Colleagues,

Renowned baritone Jonathan Summers provided the dramatic and to some extent the vocal focus for this pair of immaculate thriller operas. He demonstrated a staggering depth of character, volume and texture of vocal line and showed what it is to be a star of the operatic stage. At the end of his moving prologue aria “Si puo?“ he nailed an A flat which seemed unassailable.

His tenor counterpart in both operas was Welshman Dennis O’Neill who showed equal mastery of the art. Again, there were fast, slow, high and low to show off his prodigious talents, nowhere more so than in the clown’s dressing-room aria, ‘Vesti la giubba’.

Ms Youl was ideally suited to the role of Santuzza. Her ‘Regina cœli’ and ‘Ineggiamo’ scene was high art indeed with the freeze/flashback very cleverly staged using blacked out rear and fly lighting with linear precision indicating pews in a church. The return to the village square and conversation between the excommunicated and mother in law seemingly seamless.

Ms Farrugia played a suitable Nedda and had all it takes dramatically and vocally even though the role is unlike her usual (everyone has to be adaptable in this day and age). Ms Domenica Matthews played a sexy and detached Lola.

Village lover Silvio was played brilliantly by Jose Carbo. This smaller role is often left to a lesser talent but Mr Carbo looked the part in white poplin, his voice coming over as confident, even and large, befitting his engagement at La Scala this year.

I had forgotten that after the scripted bloodshed, Canio stabs himself at the end of I Pagliacci which was an added dramatic shock to an action-packed evening of opera.

Mr Licata conducted with gusto and flair with all points going to the woodwinds and the prominent scoring especially for flute and bassoon. I must say that again there were jarring noises from the brass, evidently the trumpet section on several occasions and one wonders if there is a problem there needing attention.

I note from the new season schedule that the company is still calling on singers to do major roles with only one day’s break on occasions. Nobody in the company seems to heed history, medical and occupational health experts, singing teachers or agents. The company gives … and the company takes away. It is like the editor’s decision being so very final. If our singers had a strong union like the orchestra this would never have been allowed to happen, at least not without serious danger money being paid.

It is hard to imagine that the opera company management has such entrenched problems when opera of this high standard is being put on. Yet operas are scheduled 2 to 3 years ahead of time … and the first two operas of the season are repeats of standard repertoire using known talents with little if any ‘risk’ or exposure.

Following the sudden death of maestro Richard Hickox in November, another untimely and tragic loss this past week will also impact upon opera in Australia with the passing of soprano Deborah Riedel after a long battle with cancer. Our sympathies and thoughts go to her family and friends at this difficult time.

Ms Riedel, 50, had prodigious talents in both dramatic and coloratura roles. Her stage skills were well honed and she had consistently favourable notices in her formidable international career. She sang in many of the great opera houses and worked with some of the world’s top talents including Jose Carreras, Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. Despite this, and along with numerous other top Australian artists, Ms Riedel was engaged less and less by the national company in favour of a small group of younger, ‘safer’ and perhaps more amenable female singers. The opera company’s initial media release (since corrected) had Ms Riedel performing in the 50th anniversary gala concert when in fact she was in the audience. It is all very sad. Rest in peace. The funeral is on Friday morning.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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03 January, 2009

Resplendent Madame Butterfly at Sydney Opera House.

Madame Butterfly - Sydney Opera House Tuesday 30th December 2008, 7.30pm.

Cio-cio-san - Cheryl Barker
Pinkerton - Julian Gavin
Sharpless - Barry Ryan
Suzuki - Catherine Carby
Cond. - Shao-Chia Lu

Dear Colleagues,

This performance of Butterfly was a triumph in every way. It was a worthy outing of Puccini’s masterpiece and an important psychological threshold for a company under stress from several angles, culminating in the sudden death of Maestro Richard Hickox last month in the UK.

Ms Barker is unrivalled in Australia today as Cio-cio-san. While she did this role in 1997 with charm and poise, the intervening years have not diminished her powers. Puccini’s heroine is one of the most difficult operatic characters, needing to look like a delicate Japanese teenager yet sing like a Walkurie!

Returned Australian Julian Gavin is every bit of the international star tenor and his Pinkerton is worthy indeed. The voice is well supported and secure up to a resplendent top. His dramatic presence is such that he was given some ‘in character’ boos at the end. Puccini and his librettists made sure that this role was the ultimate insult for American foreign policy … some things never change … but this IS opera, after all!

Barry Ryan looks and sounds like a competent comprimario singer which is just fine for an embassy delegate, especially one without an aria. The other brief but important roles were also well cast.

Not since the Sutherland days had I seen virtually every single seat occupied at the Sydney Opera House. Balcony boxes, rear rows and standing room were all occupied … and few if any tickets appeared to have been given away, a common practice last season. On the other hand, an ambitious season of 23 performances may be stretching the opera market beyond its boundaries. Also, the season opening, usually the 2nd or 3rd of January, had been advanced by 4 days, altering the plans of all Gala patrons who renewed. This strategy appears to have paid off so far. Those wishing to hear the vocal and dramatic chemistry between Julian Gavin and Ms Barker will have to be quick as they only sing together for another 5 performances with the season continuing for three full months (with cast changes).

The orchestra under Taiwanese Mr Lu played well but we seem to have to tolerate frequent blurts and off pitch notes from the brass section, over which Mr Lu probably has little control.

I personally find this production irritating and unsympathetic. It seems to be a slowed down version of Miss Saigon which has the same story line. Yet it is popular with the crowds and that is what matters these days.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
Dr Andrew Byrne MB BS (Syd) FAChAM (RACP)
Dependency Medicine,
75 Redfern Street, Redfern,
New South Wales, 2016, Australia
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