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18 October, 2009

Peter Grimes at Sydney Opera House.

Peter Grimes: Britten. Sydney Opera House 2009 Thursday 15th October 2009

Dear Colleagues,

This was an extraordinary night at the opera, honour being had by all. Even the fussiest Britten fan should not be disappointed by the overall effect of this production. It was set in a classic 20th century British community hall, complete with angled windows, swinging double doors, wall clock, hanging fluorescent lights and curtained stage with central steps for prize recipients. Only the portrait of ‘her maj’ was missing.

Maestro Mark Wigglesworth was the hero of the evening as he conducted an experienced and well placed orchestra with flair and knowing enthusiasm. Full-throated Australian international tenor Stuart Skelton played the title role with sufficient ambiguity to be sympathetic, despite the obvious negatives. He sang Grimes to the cleaners with extended, exciting high and mighty vocalising. He also managed to often appear shy and insipid dramatically to augment the uncertainty about his motives and circumstances.

Ms Susan Gritton played a fine Ellen Orford with an incising and substantial soprano voice. I note that she has recorded with Pamela Helen Stephens under Richard Hickox. While her portrayal was marvellous it is hard to imagine that there is no Australian soprano available, despite the challenges of this role.

Peter Coleman-Wright was an effective (retired) Captain Balstrode. The two chirpy nieces were played well by Lorina Gore and Taryn Fiebig. Kanen Breen was appropriately cast as the clergyman.

Along with the solo village characters (David Corcoran, Richard Anderson, Elizabeth Campbell, Andrew Moran, Peter Carroll and Catherine Carby) the chorus was excellent. They acted separately and then in concert, unity and purpose when required.

The opera is meant to take place in numerous locations from the seashore to boat house to village court house. With ubiquitous modern economies we see almost the entire opera take place in the village hall. Ropes, tackle and nets are carted through the hall as if it were the marine seaside. A boat is even dragged through the building which is beyond bizarre. Lightning occurs inside and a storm is quite cleverly mimicked within. Such is modern opera. At one point the rear proscenium is pushed forward to become the fisherman’s cliff-top hang-out for the death scene.

As in the excellent old John Copley production in 2001 we were presented with apprentices who were very young pre-pubertal boys rather than the mid-teenagers one might glean from Crabbe’s source poem - and its libretto by Montagu Slater. I find Slater’s constant scrambling of English grammar to be tiresome, despite its initial cleverness. Peter Grimes is a 20th century masterpiece but it is clearly not everybody’s cup of tea as the theatre was far from full, even with large numbers of free tickets given away. This may be one of the company’s best efforts this year. The audience literally screamed at the end with cheers for all those involved.

For those who enjoy Benjamin Britten (I exclude myself) this opera is a ‘must-see’ … and there are only 5 more performances (one being on Saturday night, after only one day’s break!).

It seems unbalanced and unfair that most operas billed to be conducted by the musical director in recent years had internationally acclaimed casts singing with the best of Australia’s resident opera singers. Peter Grimes has five artists who have reputations at a high international level (Wigglesworth, Armfield, Skelton, Gritton, Coleman-Wright). At the same time most of our other operas this year have had only one or two who might fit this category - some had none. While less notable productions of La Boheme and Cosi fan tutte were televised by the ABC, the operas with world-class casts and productions were passed over for mere audio recordings with an English record company, denying posterity the sight of such unique performances from down-under.

It is sad to see such a poor quality televised production of Cosi fan tutte recently on the ABC. While it was not as bad as last year’s La Boheme, there is still a major contrast with previous video efforts of this company as well as with modern high definition broadcasts from New York and elsewhere. There were no sub-titles. The commentary was excruciating. Jennifer Byrne’s cues (no relation) were visible written on the palm of her hand! While there was some fine singing, the production and camera work did not compliment it. I have just watched the second half of Les Huguenots from 1990 and it is superior in every way.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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Shul notes:

01 October, 2009

2010 season for the national opera company advertised.

Opera season 2010 hard to understand ... preliminary summation.

I read through the next season’s OA brochure with a feeling of persistent and profound disappointment. It would appear to be the final nail in the coffin of a spent company whose direction is decidedly downhill.

Tosca (Barker/Youl) in a modern production with ONE intermission? [Surely that is a misprint!] And although La Spina may be fine vocally as the opening Cavaradossi, Barricelli was last year’s disappointing second cast Rodolfo and is not up to standard to my mind/ear/eye, etc. And an updated production which is meant to be a successor to the magnificent John Copley version? Seriously? The scene shown in the subscription brochure is not endearing, looking like a smoky and sepia back-room - a very long way from the Farnese Palace of history (or even the glorious present). Scarpia is not billed at all on the web site but apparently opens with John Wegner who is a fine artist and I think has done the role here before. Fyfe is second cast having been Sacristan initially. They should both be interesting … one with a most beautiful voice, the other large and unsubtle (and possibly even better suited to the role). Sacristan to Scarpia is indeed a steep learning curve!

The only visiting singer I would have really liked to have heard was Lisa Gasteen as Fanciulla. She has pulled out with “a neck injury”, according to a leaflet in the brochure as an addendum. Some brochures were received without the leaflet and such patrons reapplying may be sorely disappointed when seeing the Girl of the Golden West. Dennis O'Neill is billed to do Dick Johnson while Jack Rance is John Wegner. One hopes that the company has talented understudies available this time. If they had been professional (and honest) with their audience Ms Gasteen would have had an understudy chosen and available for Fidelio. In such a case, no debate would be necessary as a talented soprano would just take her place as is ‘normal’ for such situations, short or long term in the theatre.

La Sonnambula is with Emma Matthews and Hye Seoung Kwon as second cast with Aldo di Toro as Elvino with Lorina Gore as Lisa. Bonynge conducting (if he makes it - apparently he wanted to pull out of Capulets but Dame Joan apparently pushed him to do it despite the ugly production and other hurdles last season). It is extraordinary for any opera company to do two rare Bellini operas in successive years - yet more bizarre choices in this company.

I note that one week (starting Mon 16th Aug 2010) the company is expected to give quality performances of La Sonnambula on the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings, despite this being one of the most demanding operas in the entire repertoire. Likewise, between 16 and 29 October the cast of Rigoletto has to perform 6 times. On no less than 3 occasions this very taxing opera has to be sung with only one day’s break. This is a criminal act in my view, especially for young singers who may not have the stamina to do such a feat without damaging their voices.

The publicity shot of Rigoletto includes long-time chorus stalwart Mr Theo Connors who died quite some years ago. Surely in his memory if nothing else, they might get an up-to-date shot of this excellent production.

There are only a small number of imported artists of international calibre in the entire season as far as I can see. Dennis O’Neill has apparently just done a successful La Juive in Amsterdam while Elvira Fatykhova, billed to do Traviata, is also well known internationally. Tahu Rhodes, Opie, Coad, Bonynge also ‘rate’.

Other Traviata roles are assigned to Di Toro, Summers/Lewis. It is unlikely that any of these singers will give a better performance that we have heard from them in the past.

Manon: Farrugia, Gavin, Carbo, Bennett. Again we have Carbo in a minor and in some ways unrewarding role of Lescaut despite his prodigious talents, vocal and dramatic. Nonetheless, this promises to be a good choice with the wonderful Julian Gavin and always reliable Amelia Farrugia.

Rigoletto with David Corcoran (alt. cast Paul O’Neill) and Emma Matthews. The jester is Alan Opie, aged 65, (alt. Warwick Fyfe). Mr Corcoran also does Nick in Fanciulla. It is inconsistent and unconventional casting in my view. Let’s hope it pays off.

Rosenkavalier: Barker Carby Kwon Choo Fyfe

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Cole, Durkin, Arthur, Carby, Coad

In short: Most operas I either don’t care to see (Pirates, Bliss, Night Music, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rosenkavalier) or else I have seen so often that I don’t need to see again just now (Tosca, Rigoletto, Traviata, Nozze) … leaving Manon, La Sonnambula and Fanciulla (if they can find a worthy Minnie) as the only operas I would look forward to seeing in the 2010 seasons.

I suspect I am not alone in these views and I predict the company will have a lot of trouble keeping the bottom line with such a devalued artistic product. This is tragic and just another part of the ‘operatic’ story being played out in what should be a happy tale.

Note that there is no New Year's Eve concert, nor any explanation as far as I could find. The main season opens with Sondheim … not that I have anything against Sondheim, but opera it ain't - see the company’s clearly worded mission statement. It takes two and a half weeks into the season before we actually hear an opera from this opera company with Fanciulla del West.

Likewise in January for the first time the company joins the Festival of Sydney (whatever that means, but they say Candide in the Park is ‘opera’ which is fair enough in my book) yet in the first two weeks of January there are only two true opera performances (with 12 in the following two weeks).

I have never been able to work out why there are so many gaps in opera schedules, especially Fridays and Saturdays. Most rehearsals are during the day. Uniquely, I note that in a four week period in March 2010 (3rd to 30th) there are 26 out of 28 possible performances (Mon to Sat evenings plus a matinee) and there are no 'gaps' at all on Fridays or Saturdays. This is “making money” if the houses are reasonable. By contrast in June, July and August there are 13, 7 and 10 'gaps' where there is no paying public. Each night empty the company loses big time. Remarkably, 7 of these 'skipped' performance spaces are on Friday or Saturday dates which are the only ones traditionally for the theatre which ‘make money’.

Take your pick, it’s a lottery.