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29 September, 2009

Cosi fan tutte at Sydney Opera House.

Cosi fan tutte. W. A. Mozart. Sydney Opera House Thursday 17th September 2009

Ferrando - Henry Choo
Guglielmo - Shane Lawrencev
Don Alfonso - Jose Carbo
Fiordiligi - Rachel Durkin
Dorabella - Sian Pendry
Despina - Tiffany Speight
Conductor - Simon Hewitt
Director – Jim Sharman
Sets – Ralph Myers

Dear Colleagues,

This opera opening failed to inspire. The production makes the convoluted but symmetrical drama even more bizarre by placing it as the feature at a Japanese wedding - and the opera is about wife swapping! Seriously! By chance I was seated next to a young man visiting from Japan – he seemed suitably bemused by it all.

My seats were towards the end of the first row of the circle and much of the stage set was hidden from view. Mozart’s magnificent aria ‘Un aura amorosa’ was rather beautifully sung by Henry Choo although he was invisible to us at the rear of the stage. This was not the only important aria to be sung at such a disadvantage. What was Jim Sharman thinking? Does he know opera? Does he like the voice? Does he have any respect for the opera audience in B-reserve? At musically melting times like ‘Un aura amorosa’, production details, costumes, wigs and all disappear from relevance to the opera fan. Would Mr Sharman have the show-piece sung off stage, perhaps? Or a mad scene in the Green Room? They are the only times when it is essential to ‘stand and deliver’.

Conductor Simon Hewitt tried to be clever-by-half by just starting the overture without the usual entrance bow. Maestro Cillario once did this in the Concert Hall with the Otello storm opening … and it was stunning. This time it fell flat as the audience was clapping weakly while the orchestra struck up, spoiling the beginning but giving promise of a problematic night at the opera.

Jose Carbo is one of the country's best baritones (he recently landed work at La Scala, Milan). His voice and good looks would have made him ideal as the young lover yet he was cast with a grey wig to be Don Alfonso, the sceptical old drama devisor.

Fordiligi and Dorabella had to do a scene in 1950s bathing suits. While Pendry and Durkin shape up well, this decision limits the production substantially for understudies, future participants and for use by other companies. The inevitable result is that voice will not be the main attribute in casting, but rather the figure of the soprano auditioning. Few of the world’s best opera singers would present well in bathing suits on stage so this would be like having a masters golf tournament where all participants had to be over six foot tall … or under 30 … or blond … or blue-eyed. The ‘main game’ of opera is big, beautiful, unamplified singing (in case that needed stating!). While ‘Hollywood’ choices may sometimes work as Baz Luhrman’s La Boheme, or Netrebko/Villazon Manon, this time it failed by demanding too much of the work and the audience.

In place of a large mock-magnet to resuscitate the ailing men, this director had Doctor Mesmer use a huge plastic phallus to excite the boys back to consciousness … which was as illogical as it was tasteless. Equally out of place was the confetti used throughout the production, despite there being two brief wedding scenes in which it might have been appropriate. At the start the ‘boys’ are taking a shower ‘under confetti’ for no particular reason while the tenor scratches his groin. This school boy humour is quite out of place, adding nothing to the drama. A full-length white see-through stage curtain was frequently and demonstrably dragged open and closed, rarely revealing or obscuring anything substantive.

The language argument will never be won or lost but I personally never wish to hear this opera performed in English, although much of the vocal translation contained very beautiful language, unlike some others we have heard over the years.

On several occasions a paparazzi video-cameraman walked onto stage filming singers close up with rear stage projections. At one point he turned his lens toward the audience and several women at random who suddenly found themselves in the show on a magnified screen, perhaps to their delight but equally possibly, embarrassment. This detracted from both Mozart's music and the drama. Again, it is hard to know what Mr Sharman was thinking.

Each of the main singers performed well, despite the disadvantages of having to do extraordinary and sometimes quite athletic things on stage. As usual, the company orchestra and chorus were the backbones of the performance. It was just such a shame that the management, lacking any real supervision, had again allowed a few clever ideas to get in the way of good opera, rather than enhancing it.

And next year’s season looks to be more of the same unbalanced pedestrian fare. No flair, no fire and few stars in really starring roles. Details on request or see the web site.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..