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19 August, 2009

Capuleti e i Montecchi & Aida in Sydney.

Sydney winter season up-date: two operas worth seeing.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Bellini. Sydney Opera House Tuesday 11th August 2009.
Aida - Verdi - Sydney Opera House Saturday 15th August 2009 7.30pm

The Sydney ‘winter’ (it feels more like summer at present!) opera season continues with Bellini’s little known take on the Romeo and Juliet story as well as a second cast for the new Graeme Murphy Aida (with “Mexico” high E flat!!).

The Bellini never quite caught fire for me even though individual performances were mostly very fine. Aldo di Toro joined this season’s indisposed, replaced by Henry Choo who performed quite superlatively on this occasion. He looked the part and was a fine Tebaldo vocally as well. Ms Matthews seemed to be a bit below par in this role specifically chosen for her. The part of Juliet does not have much of the vocal fioritura which is her forte. Catherine Carby was the star of the night as Romeo. Suitably cross-dressed, she sang with a wide vocal range, giving colour to every note.

The chorus sang with their usual flair and gusto - and their dramatic moves were convincing and synchronised - they are the backbone of the company.

It was sad to see that Joan Sutherland was not present. She has attended most of her husband’s openings since her own retirement 19 years ago, at least when she was in Sydney. Maestro Richard Bonynge had the orchestra sounding balanced, fluid and ever-tuneful as for all of Bellini’s operas. The overture is a masterly piece of symphonic engineering, almost a continuous fanfare … it was one of the evening’s few high points for me.

There were a significant number of empty seats on this opening night which may reflect the company’s obvious decline in standards over recent years. Traditionally their gala openings have generally been virtually full and for this reason the company could afford to put some of them on a weekday.

This Capuleti production had its genesis in Ireland and came via Opera North with a sectarian destructive flavour appropriate to the book. Unfortunately there was little counter-balancing beauty to find in the sets, costumes or lighting to my taste. The curtain was in the form of a wall with illuminated bullet holes joined by a black line. The stage had a large quadrangular piece of stylish blond parquet with a ripped and damaged corner. In the last act much of the flooring had been rent asunder in the melee, cleverly evoking the violence in the intermission. There was much violence threatened on stage but little actually happening. One patron said it was a lesson in pacifism!

Some opera directors and designers seem to have forgotten that most fans go to the opera for the singing and the other things need to ‘fit in’ rather than the other way around. Ms Matthews was made to sing her first phrases lying on the ground facing the rear of the stage. With the odd resonation I thought for a moment we were having amplification again as in Fidelio. The apparent amplification was strenuously denied by several company people afterwards … but why was a test of recording equipment (the reason given) allowed to occur during an opening night performance? Surely this is what rehearsals are for.

I was so disengaged at one stage that I wondered just what makes an opera ‘special’, deciding that there must be something or things which raise goose flesh. With limbic reward pathways in the brain, even logical sensible people can develop a desire to revisit the experience. Samuel Johnson said it was an exotic and irrational entertainment. This is almost the definition of an addictive behaviour, including tobacco smoking. There was little or nothing in this Capuleti performance which I wanted to re-visit, so addiction was not a consideration. For those who have experienced a satisfactory performance of Lucia’s mad scene or the quartet from Rigoletto or the duets from Lakmé or Pearlfishers, they will know what I mean. If one had seen and heard the Mexico City Aida with Fabriitis, Callas and Del Monaco … or Norma with Sutherland … or Tosca with Caballe and/or Pavarotti … THEN one would be inoculated with opera for life. Just one such performance could provide dinner party stories forever.

The Saturday 15 August performance of Aida had a most impressive second cast. Claire Rutter did a mighty job with Aida, daring to risk taste and tonsil with a brief but accurate terminal high E-flat in competition with the entire Triumphal chorus, orchestra (and original score). Maria Callas had done this to great acclaim in Mexico City in 1951. Rosario La Spina was superb as Radames - I think this is his best role yet although he is not the most ‘subtle’ singer. Elizabeth Campbell as Amneris and Barry Ryan as Amonasro were both adequate. David Parkin’s Pharaoh was more comfortable and consistent than he had been on opening night. As Ramfis we heard Gennadi Dubinski who is new to me in the poorly served and important field of bass-baritones. I would say that this second cast was as worthy as opening night across the board. Some excellent casting decisions have been made for Aida. The full audience shows that a good performance of a popular opera can still get a full house.

The Nile pond, featuring prominently at the front of the stage was apparently overfilled, causing a spill into the orchestra during the first intermission. They may have needed umbrellas! The audience was kept waiting for some time while the problem as rectified. Like the loud-speaker problem in Fidelio it is hard to explain how this kind of thing could happen in a tightly run opera house. Water on stage, like amplification, needs constant minute-by-minute supervision.

These operas are still worth seeing if you are in Sydney. Capuleti has some glorious moments in what is, in my view, an imperfect opera. Aida needs no introduction and novices should consummate their acquaintance with this masterpiece before going to their next dinner party (do people still have ‘dinner parties’?).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
Dr Andrew Byrne MB BS (Syd) FAChAM (RACP)
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