Joan Sutherland memorial concert. Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. 10.30am Tuesday 12 November 2010
This was a moving and appropriate tribute to our departed diva. The speeches were all genuine and heart-felt - from Julia Gillard, Adam Bonynge, Moffatt Oxenbould and Marie Bashir. The host was Adrian Collette of Opera Australia.
In the assembled chorus I recognised Ken Collins, Joan Carden, Anson Austin, Don Shanks, Bob Gard, Paul Ferris, Ros Illing, Henri Wilden, Jennifer McGregor, Amelia Farrugia and numerous familiar faces who may have been former chorus ladies and gents (the company has now largely relocated for the Melbourne season). Bob Allman, Malcolm Donnelly and Cheryl Barker were in the audience. I also noted Elizabeth Allen, long serving chorus member, now retired, who was an old school friend of Joan Sutherland. There would have been others who I have forgotten and numerous people who I did not spy with my little eye.
The service was broadcast on national television and radio. The sound quality of Bell song and Parigi o Cara were top notch but then something happened and the system seemed to be below par for the Mad Scene and Borgia finale. I thought it was a little odd that they chose Va Pensiero from Nabucco, an opera Sutherland (wisely) never sang in.
Unfortunately Maestro Richard Bonynge was unable to attend, having been conducting ballet in Cuba. His son Adam spoke eloquently on his father's behalf. Richard Bonynge was the most important person in Joan Sutherland’s life.
While there were no titles for the Concert Hall projections, I was pleased to see that the broadcast did include sub-titles for the clips of Sutherland’s singing. This is so very important for the novice … as well as some of us more seasoned folk I suspect.
Yes, what days they were. Sydney was privileged to hear Sutherland’s middle and late career with a (then) good quality opera company. We also heard her great career retirement extravaganza which was the full-fledged French grand opera, Les Huguenots or the ‘night of seven stars’. Few provincial opera companies then or now would be able to muster such talents as Grant, Johnston, Austin, Pringle, Wegener, Thane, Sutherland. It was one of the saddest night of my life - of course I was just sorry for myself!
From about 1975 to 1990 I recall each year opening the new season’s brochure and being excited to read what opera(s) Sutherland and Bonynge would be doing next and who would sing with them. While the latter were not always as great, they were mostly superior singers to the standard we hear today at the Sydney Opera House. And each rose to the very substantial occasion, giving us all world class goose bumps year after year. I think that Lucrezia Borgia was her best, but comparisons may be odious. She did two seasons of it if I recall correctly. I have been listening to the YouTube video of the finale aria – a true coup-de-force to end an opera!
During those years we also heard Il Trovatore, Suor Angelica, Der Fledermaus, Lakme, Merry Widow, La Traviata, Otello, Tales of Hoffman, Lucia di Lammamoor, Norma, I Puritani, Semiramide, I Masnadieri, Huguenots, Dialogue of the Carmelites and Idomeneo (only the last two were disappointments for me - but I have very narrow opera tastes). The Lucia, Norma and Traviata were indeed immortal performances. She also did a Rigoletto in the Domain one year: I was in raptures.
It is hard to convey to a younger generation just what it meant when it was a ‘Sutherland night’ at the theatre. As well as the soprano, there were higher ‘gears’ for just about everybody in the place from the bar staff to the orchestra … not to mention that amazing buzz amongst the audience, some of whose members might have even heard Nellie Melba (albeit also past HER prime).
I recall that each year when La Stupenda commenced singing we may have wondered if she was still up to it. There was often a wobble and flutter and even some flat sounds. She definitely took some time to warm up but by the end of the initial recitative or aria she would launch into the most miraculous high-performance and unique vocal delivery for the remainder. It was no longer a “tsunami” of sound, just a large, moving, dancing vocalism which dazzled through every range of emotion, rhythm and texture. We shall not see or hear the likes again.
JOAN SUTHERLAND - A PHYSIQUE TO MATCH THE VOICE OF THE CENTURY! by Andrew Byrne (1994)
The aspirations of a nation were epitomised for two generations by the singing career of Joan Sutherland. Her consistent high artistic standards and dependability are rare in the history of opera and may be due in no small way to her staunch Scottish Australian upbringing in Sydney during the depression years.
Sutherland rarely cancelled due to illness. Many years ago, an Australian doctor who happily advised against tonsillectomy, commented on the perfection of her vocal cords. She suffered throat and sinus infections in the 1950s said to be due to London smog. Regular antral lavages were done by ENT consultant Mr Ivor Griffiths. After her first Glyndebourne season, she was advised to have her teeth capped. This she describes as a long, painful series of treatments. In the 1960s, she was stricken with backache which the headlines exaggerated to 'SOPRANO PARALYSED!'.
Although always a big woman, she basically has a 'solid constitution'. She attempted weight reduction on occasions. On her yearly tours of Australia in the 1980s rumours often arose that Sutherland had influenza. These were confirmed by all who heard her speak, but when she sang, as she nearly always did, only her most exacting fans could tell that she was below par. I recall on one such night overhearing her say "Gooty gooty gubdrops!" when told that it was another full house. Despite her obvious rhinitis, she sang the evil heroine Lucrezia Borgia to an appreciative audience.
Only once in sixteen years did she cancel a performance at the Sydney Opera House. The final performances of Norma were taken over by a very competent local understudy when the diseased diva declined. She was once let down by a union dispute in Melbourne, and on another occasion, she sang La Traviata at 12 hours notice due to the sickness of several colleagues in Mozart's Idomeneo.
Having gone to London in 1951 aged 25 to study singing, she was assigned progressively more demanding dramatic rôles until dazzling the opera world with her Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti at Covent Garden in 1959. She was suddenly in demand all over the world. A wise contract at this period took her over the English Channel to record a bracket of opera scenes with Nello Santi conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. Although she has made many fine recordings, some believe this accessional piece to be her most outstanding legacy. It featured the fountain aria from act one as well as the celebrated mad scene from Lucia. It also contained three rarely performed works brought from obscurity by earlier 'microgroove' recordings of the great Maria Callas who shared some repertoire, but little else with Joan Sutherland. The full recording session is now available on budget CD and displays pure crystal coloratura.
Sutherland next performed Verdi's La Traviata to great acclaim. Bellini's Norma was another of her great triumphs. With Bonynge's encouragement, she embraced the lesser known Bellini operas in turn: La Sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda and I Puritani. Her Lucia was heard in many great opera houses including Milan, Amsterdam, Vienna, Palermo, Barcelona, New York and Buenos Aires. Everywhere but Australia.
The year 1965 saw a grand return tour to all the Australian capitals with the greatest opera season since the Melba-Williamson days of 1930. They brought the unknown tenor Luciano Pavarotti whom Bonynge had auditioned for the tour. The company sang Rigoletto, Lucia, Semiramide, Faust, La Sonnambula and La Traviata, all to great acclaim.
The couple did not return again until 1974 with Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann in Sydney, a sell-out recital in Melbourne and an Australia-wide broadcast. This saw the beginning of annual tours of this country and setting up of home in Australia where son, Adam, his English wife and young family had also settled. For a further sixteen years she sang regularly with The Australian Opera and performed recitals in Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide and New Zealand while continuing a busy international schedule.
The presence of Sutherland and Bonynge in Australian musical life has been a catalyst for others artists to achieve greater artistic heights. Usually with Bonynge conducting, Sutherland performed a variety of works in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane in the theatre, concert hall and even the open air park's concerts. These ranged from The Merry Widow to Verdi's Otello and Rigoletto, modern French repertoire with Poulenc's The Dialogue of the Carmelite's, Puccini's Suor Angelica, Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia and Lucia di Lammermoor, always her pièce de résistance.
She continued creating new rôles and recordings until the late 1980s, her last great new rôle being Anne Boleyn by Donizetti. This rare work contains the first ever 'mad scene', concluding with Sutherland's trade-mark: a spectacular vocal display and final high note soaring above the combined sounds of the chorus and orchestra.
Like her debut performance in Lucia over thirty years earlier, her final operatic stage appearance created a sensation. Les Huguenots has seven starring rôles which allowed the maximum number of her colleagues to share the stage for this most memorable season. On the final night, she sang to a theatre full of devoted fans, some of whom had waited all night for the few cheap seats available in the Sydney Opera House. At the final curtain, the audience gave a tumultuous reception and the company put on a fireworks display inside the theatre all of which was broadcast across the world. An era ended with a simple encore of Bonynge accompanying Sutherland in Home Sweet Home.
Sutherland's remarkable career has lessons for us all. She schooled her god-given gift, developing it to the unique instrument that has brought such pleasure for so long. Although having her share of illness and personal problems, she triumphed over adversity, as ever in the theatre, the show must go on!
Written in 1994. Dr Andrew Byrne is a general practitioner in Redfern, NSW.
References Pleasants H; The Great Singers. Gollancz Ltd, 1967. Anderson J; Dictionary of Opera and Operetta. Bloomsbury 1989. Oxenbould, M; Joan Sutherland - A tribute. Honeysett Publications, 1989. Major, N; Joan Sutherland. Queen Anne Press, 1987.
Richard Wagner – First Ring Opera in new ‘cycle’ directed by Robert Lepage at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Telecast third performance early October 2010, shown in Australasia Sunday 24th October.
This Rheingold Met telecast shown at cinemas around the world was glorious vocally and spectacular visually. I would recommend it to anyone, especially the Wagner neophyte. With subtitles, an excellent cast and coherent staging, this is a user-friendly, 21st century extravaganza without a ‘dead patch’ in it. The 2½ hours flashed by in what seemed like minutes. Apparently the Met demanded a concept which was novel, yet which followed Wagner’s instructions.
To do this, the stage settings are all provided by a 40 tonne machine with 24 rotating ‘gang planks’. These can form a vertical, horizontal, angled surface or even a series of lateral steps going almost the full width of the Metropolitan stage. By some clever device they can also be illuminated with any colour, texture or shimmering effect. Bubbles going up, river stones rolling down … marble effects, nothing is too difficult for the ‘machine’. The initial effect was of the Rhine river bank at dawn with an almost imperceptible wave motion as the introductory music led into the Rhine Maidens who were apparently (and actually) floating in mid-air (or mid-water).
A narrow trench in front of the palisaded planks served for Alberich’s arrival and Erda’s appearance. It may also provide a home for Norns, a launching pad for Walkiries and possibly a dragon lair, etcetera, in the later operas. The final exit of the gods to Valhalla took them through centre-stage between what looked like technicolour hologram stripes to walk seemingly vertically half way up the stage and then to level out towards the out of sight sky-castle in the sunset. A rainbow passed behind while a scheming and yet quizzical Loge looked on as the curtain finally came down to thunderous applause [Loge got booed for some reason in his curtain call]. This applause came from both the live audience at the Met as well as appreciative cinema attendees.
Bryn Terfel did a fine job of Wotan. He did not tire. His portrayal of the vacillating wanderer god was consistent and strong. His weaknesses were also well exposed. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka the goddess of marriage (and ‘Mrs Wotan’) was magnificent. Her enormous velvety voice pervaded the whole opera with an emotional and romantic side to a story which when it is all said and done is basically about imminent foreclosure on a sub-prime castle mortgage, bail-outs and penalty clauses. If the piece were classified by a criminal lawyer we would start with sexual harassment followed by breach of promise and then grand larceny as the gold is stolen under the eyes of the ‘nice but naughty’ Rhine Maidens. The litany goes downhill from there, ending in ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’ as Valhalla is occupied by its immortal miscreants.
By the end of Rhinegold, and all due the possession of the ring, there has been one murder, a kidnapping and a ransom demand. The philosopher might observe Lord Acton’s thesis exemplified here, or at least some of it, as power and money corrupt so very totally. Yet the good Lord was wrong about one thing at least: beautiful things don’t always make money (vide Wagner whose works are more likely to bankrupt an opera company than make money for it! The Met may be the exception.).
The male star of the night for me was Eric Owens as Alberich. An imposing African-American man with a glorious rich baritone voice, he reigned dramatically and vocally through numerous scenes in the opera. His most challenging portrayal was perhaps after he was turned into a frog and had to face capture in a terrine and then humiliation in front of his slaves, having been lord of the world (or underworld). At this point in her humorous spoof on the Ring, Anna Russell said: “I am not making this up, you know!”
Other supporting soloists were Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, Patricia Bardon as Erda, Richard Croft as Loge, Dwayne Croft as Donner, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt and Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner. Each was chosen for being an exemplary Wagnerian - and none disappointed. Froh was played by a tall, handsome young American, Adam Diegel who has a natural and almost perfectly produced tenor voice. Lengthy close-up camera encounters were not so kind for all of the others who, while all perfectly suited to Wagner, were not necessarily headlines for Hollywood.
In contrast to the Tardis-like timeless settings, the costumes by Francois St-Aubin were traditional theatrical ‘dress-up’ with even a shade of fantasy-land which is not inappropriate. The giants had enormous deltoid padding as in a school play and Wotan had a big plastic breast plate. Erda was in black and white while others had lavish amounts of rich fabrics and adornments in no particular earthly tradition.
James Levine and his orchestra were exemplary, taking the piece at a measured pace and never dominating the vocal side. I was disappointed that we did not have more shots of the orchestra … some of the long stretches of stage close-ups detracted from the telecast as one sometimes could lose track of what was happening on the stage as a whole, something which cannot happen in the live theatre.
Robert Lepage and his team have indeed succeeded in transforming this epic work into a new and enjoyable production for their Manhattan audience. It is a privilege to be able to join the Rhine journey in cinemas across the world.
Rigoletto - Sydney Opera House Sat 18th September 2010 7.30pm
Despite the hype, this opera performance was disappointing. The veteran English baritone who was to sing the title role got sick during the dress rehearsal on Thursday and was replaced by Warwick Fyfe who did a fine job according my informant as well as a company insider who confirmed it. The Englishman went on for the opening night even though it was clear he was still sick. So obviously weak was his singing in the first act that an announcement was made after the interval. But rather than pulling out, Mr Opie ‘consented to continue’ but ‘craved our indulgence’, going on to murder the role and dent his fine reputation.
Verdi’s great genius made Rigoletto a ‘gift’ to the baritone, tenor, soprano and two basses. But in this performance hardly anyone on the stage excelled. Despite her unique talents and deserved popularity, Emma Matthews is just not quite right for Gilda ... not enough ‘heft’ in my view. And her particular talent with high coloratura was not used for some reason. I suspect the conductor may have banned her from doing anything that was not in the score, something I disagree with. She omitted the high note from the end of the quartet. She did not do the Roberta Peters ending of Caro nome (which I have never heard live, but which Ms Matthews could have done superbly). There are numerous variations used to end Caro nome by the many famous sopranos who have recorded it.
So would new tenor Paul O’Neill do HIS high note at the end of the cabaletta to ‘Ella mi fu rapita’? No, unfortunately not! It is rarely done, but when it is, it is electric. And while we are at it, he also faked some notes in ‘La donna e mobile’. The same note in each verse. While it sounded like a mistake the first time, twice proves he just could not sing it. So why was he given the role? It is one of the toughest in all the repertoire but that is part of the reason the opera is so popular and successful. Dramatically he was fine, but there is a drama theatre downstairs!
Sparafucile was played by David Parkin who had won a television singing contest and is one of that rare breed who could be advised to quit his day job. He was excellent and sang his final Act I note well into the wings. Such praise was not due his professional colleague playing Monterone. Gennadi Dubinsky has an unprepossessing voice. The powdery quality of his upper register contrasts with his lower notes which are simply not there. This small but important role shows off none of his good qualities and emphasised his failings. This is not a part for a comprimario. He could only have been cast in this role by a computer program as any live audition would have determined his inability to sing the notes adequately.
Now for the title role. Mr Alan Opie has been singing for 40 years and whether he is just passed his prime or simply sick, I do not know. He left out a few notes in the second scene and did not seem to have any volume to his otherwise handsome baritone voice. After the interval announcement by Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini matters improved briefly only to fall apart again in the last act. His ‘Cortigiani, vil razza’ was commendable considering his condition. However, the story of this opera hinges on a father’s curse or ‘maledizione’ and Rigoletto’s repeated plaintive exclamation of this word needs to be vocally thunderous. Mr Opie’s first two were weak and the final tragic bereaved cry of the father which should bring a chilling vocal end to the opera was simply inaudible. It was either omitted or else sung an octave lower. [And just occasionally that ending can be sung with a falling grace note by a capable baritone to phenomenal effect following the dramatic death of his daughter on stage.] The overall performance was a great let-down.
The orchestra and chorus performed in an exemplary manner. Even the soft brass sections came off perfectly while the tempi were slow and challenging with brilliant effect. The conductor Giovanni Reggioli received a huge and well deserved ovation. The chorus performed well in this up-dated mid-20th century version.
A web site states that Mr Opie has been ‘a fulcrum for Chandos records’, he is 65 years old and that he was a long-time company member at the English National Opera. It is hard to understand why he is currently guest artist here when there are so many Australian artists of equivalent calibre. There are also dozens of more qualified overseas ‘star’ artists in their prime who could raise the standard of the company by their presence. In a past generation we heard Peter Glossop, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris and Donald McIntyre on this stage. Brian Asawa, Luciano Pavarotti, Eva Marton, Sumi Jo and Kiri Te Kanawa are just a few of other international names seen with this company. Yet the management and board seem to believe that ‘stars are an unnecessary expense’ and that the audience would not know the difference. A company member actually told me that the focus groups they organised found just that. So the management seems happy to put on ordinary opera to half empty houses when we used to be able to fill the house even mid-week. There were about 200 empty seats on this Saturday night with dozens of people on free ‘grey’ tickets (whatever they are) including two sitting beside me. They even have a separate private ticket booth advertising ‘complimentary tickets’. I wonder how one gets one of those?
If my memory is correct, the last English baritone to sing this role in Sydney was Peter Glossop. He was the only English baritone in history to sing Verdi’s great tragic roles at La Scala, Milan according to Wikipedia.
I note from the season manifesto that there is more than one day’s break between each performance of Mr Opie, singing the first six performances in 20 days. However, when Warwick Fyfe takes over the title role from 21st October, the cast sings six performances in 15 days, breaking the ‘two day’ rule three times. I imagine that one of the reasons Mr Opie has been singing opera for 40 years is that he follows a few well established rules - including rest days. The management shows contempt for its own artists by forcing them to sing more often than is usual or safe, risking their voices and possibly shortening their careers. As others have workplace rules, such as noise exposure in the pit, OHS elsewhere, so it is high time to stop exploiting opera singers in this way by insensitive or incompetent employers. Singers and their agents may also have some responsibility to resist these unreasonable demands of management trying to make up for patent failings.
La Sonnambula Tues 24th August 2010 (final season performance).
A pessimist might say this was the last vestige of the ‘golden age’ of opera in Australia. Whatever one’s predictions for the federal election outcome or other less important games of chance, this evening marked the final scheduled Australian performance for Australia’s greatest living conductor [Charles Mackerras, the only other contender, died just a few weeks ago].
Richard Bonynge’s exemplary career has spanned four decades with the company. This rarely performed Bellini masterpiece was last done professionally in Australia in 1965 to my best knowledge (also under Bonynge’s baton). Its rarity is because it is ‘tough’. Tough casting, tough settings - it could easily made to look trite dramatically and ‘chocolate box’ scenically in its Helvetian alpine location. Most of all, of course, it has tough tessitura - two sopranos, one tenor and a bass baritone need to be of the highest order.
Yet the evening went by without a hitch in a charming new production. Emma Matthews is the star of the night - and despite being overworked by the company’s punishing roster, her voice sounded fresh and light with a dazzling top register. This she uses with style and taste, only occasionally moving into the ‘showy’ category. Her penultimate phenomenal sustained F with orchestra and chorus was indeed over-the-top. In Act I, ‘Come per me sereno … Sovra’il sen la man mi posa’ set a high standard indeed. This was well matched by Stephen Bennett in his haunting ‘Vi ravisso’ with slightly ornamented second verse cabaletta. One wonders if it was intentional to make him look like Basel Fawlty in Act II. Ms Gore also did some extraordinary things with her extended upper register, especially in her bridal aria in Act II. From the opening lines her ‘Lisa’ plays Amina’s rival for Elvino’s affections.
Mr Di Toro was the ‘weak’ link, if there was one, yet he was anything but weak. He has a habit of singing some phrases and notes pianissimo, broadening into a full voice forte and retreating again, something like a waxing and waning radio which is off-station or during a storm. This may be a return to a classical style of singing but was unfamiliar to me. At times he rose to greatness, especially in Act II. He was never inadequate. Of course we are inevitably comparing these singers with Pavarotti, Sutherland and Ghiaurov which is hardly fair.
For this auspicious and yet in some ways unfortunate occasion, after the final performance, there were speeches on the stage with Moffatt Oxenbould telling glowing snippets from the 36 years that Maestro Bonynge had been a part of the company. A crystal bowl trophy for “life membership” was given by current General Manager, Adrian Collette who spoke briefly.
Maestro himself then said some words of thanks, after which we were treated to some tickertape and streamers. While this was a moving tribute, it was poignant that Bonynge has apparently not been asked back to conduct with the company for future seasons. The lauded maestro even announced that in fact he was ‘still alive’ and ‘available’ (in case anyone in Sydney was interested). He looked fit and youthful considering his (almost) 80 years. I was told that he is engaged to conduct at La Scala.
The particularly awkward situation on stage had the makings of another opera. It was yet another reminder of the many misguided decisions the opera management has made in recent years, moving it further and further from its audience and its own mission statement. No wonder they cannot sell seats - so few were sold to a recent performance that apparently the dress circle was closed for the evening. The company presents fewer real stars, less real opera and much, much more spin. Just read the hype in the new season’s brochure which came out this week! It says that numerous singers are in great demand around the world … yet they are the same old singers as we have heard for years with only a couple of international names for select performances. The company is putting on 17 Butterfly performances, 27 of La Boheme, 20 of Merry Widow, 15 Don Giovanni, 8 Macbeth, 8 Lakme and 22 Carmen. Why the company would break formulae used here successfully for half a century is beyond my comprehension.
As if to cement the memories of a once great opera company some of the many unsold seats were given (at least I hope they were given) to a bevy of retired veteran singers from the Bonynge years, almost all being of a higher calibre than most of the current incumbents: Robert Allman, Clifford Grant, Geoffery Chard, Anson Austin, Maureen Howard, Donald Shanks, Lamberto Furlan, Andrew Dalton and John Pringle to name just a few. Bernadette Cullen and Fiona Janes were also present .. evidently there was also a small back-stage reception afterwards to honour Mr Bonynge. This is the Australian tall poppy syndrome taken to a ridiculous redundancy. They could have put on a big gala performance for the 80th birthday … and possibly made some money for the company while displaying some new and old operatic talent.
There were many other notable people in the audience among the regular Tuesday night subscribers. One couple I spoke to had been disappointed that their normal subscription had Ms Matthews’ alternative singing and thus they returned to hear this final performance with the company’s hottest property.
It was telling that this high quality performance of such an operatic masterpiece still had about 250 empty seats (besides the many subsidised for the VIPs). It is hard to conceive that this company would be capable of putting on Wagner’s Ring operas as announced this week for Melbourne in 2013.
La Sonnambula, Vincenzo Bellini. Sydney Opera House, Thursday 5th August 2010
This bel canto opera was ripping and gripping from start to finish. It was a delight and a pleasure to finally see a fully mounted production of this immortal opera - one of my own favourites, along with Norma. And for those keen to hear high notes this may have broken some records!
Richard Bonynge, who turns 80 this month, was completely at home in the pit and his orchestra responded in kind.
The production was charming, using a three sided palisade with painted mountains putting us in a Swiss valley. The village centre was a large raised square wooden platform set on an angle and positioned on the now ubiquitous stage revolve. Mercifully, the turning of this was used sparingly but only occasionally with any particular dramatic purpose. Projections were only used for some finale flooring, also for no apparent reason.
The story of La Sonnambula is a variation on the theme of boy-meets-girl where girl ‘two-times’ boy and is rejected, only to be exonerated using the sleepwalking defence. Ask any lawyer! Gilbert and Sullivan would have been proud, 50 years later! And there were audience chuckles at times, so rapid were some of the changed affections. [*see a historical note on somnambulism down the ages by Dr Colin Brewer, link below]
Emma Matthews has a voice which is light-years away from Joan Sutherland’s yet she performs many of the same roles in an exemplary fashion. Some may say Matthews is even more credible than La Stupenda in this opera. Her act I set piece ‘Come per me sereno … sovra il sen la man mi posa’ was of a high standard which was even excelled in the act II tour-de-force culminating in ‘Ah non giunge, uman pensiero’.
Stephen Bennett was an excellent choice for the Count. It is just a shame that this company overlooked him in favour of inferior artists for a decade. He was dressed to look like Basil Faulty in Act II. His ‘Vi ravviso’ was ravishing but I heard a complaint that he did not ornament the second verse of the cabaletta, a mortal sin in the view of the complainant, at least for bel canto reprises. I was also told that the singer playing the Count in a production of this opera by Pacific Opera last year was in the chorus of the present production. I believe that another chorus member played Elvino in the Rockdale amateur production I saw (twice) in 2002. To my knowledge this opera has not been performed by a professional company in Australia for many years, probably not since 1965 - when it had the same conductor!
Our tenor lover was played by Aldo di Toro who seemed a little ill at ease in the first half when he avoided some high options and had some ‘wooliness’ of tone. He made up for it in the second with sensitive singing and one particularly stunning high held note with the chorus, who also sang well. The chorus and orchestra remain the backbone of this company.
Ms Lorena Gore played the jealous rival with great aplomb. It was extraordinary that the two sopranos seemed to be competing in their final two nuptial scenes (to the same man!). Each sang a rapturous stretta ending in a penultimate sustained F natural followed by a B flat. This is the most phenomenal, glass shattering, ear splitting perfect cadence that, while it might offend some, is also a great draw-card for the die-hard opera goer. One could dine out on a lesser story for years. The degree of difficulty is very great and few opera companies would be able to present this sort of thing on their stages in a lifetime … but to have two sopranos doing it on the one night is exceptional and extraordinary, regardless of the rest of the show, in my view. Each of the high notes was a MOST exciting punctuation of what was balanced and beautiful singing - which is the very meaning of bel canto.
I was surprised to learn that the company is doing this opera five times in 8 days which may also be a world record - but a worrying one to my medical opinion. On one night the lead soprano is replaced by Ms Gore and her role, Lisa, is played by a third soprano. It is still a gruelling schedule which breaks a long-held rule in major theatres for major roles that there are always two rest days between performances. A prominent ENT surgeon informed me that most singers he has examined the day after singing a major role have haemorrhages and exudates on their larynx. This must take time to heal. Do marathon runners have rest rules? It was highly disappointing that this opening night had many, many empty seats as well as the now familiar coterie of familiar freebie faces - some being only distantly related to the company (even ex-employees). It is clear that the company’s marketing and the ~$300 top ticket price need to be reviewed to prevent the company going backwards financially. The management’s decision to eliminate the cheap D reserve “entry level” tickets also needs to be reviewed. While the top price is about the same at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, the cheapest seat being advertised for the Sydney Opera House is still over $100, while over 1000 seats each night at the Met are under $50. Even the (tiny) number of standing room positions in Sydney was reduced and nothing done to replace this market for young or poor or would-be opera enthusiasts.
Re-published here on the occasion of the first professional season of the opera in Australia since 1965 (and with the same conductor, Richard Bonynge).
Written by Dr Colin Brewer. Medical Director, The Stapleford Centre.
SLEEPWALKING: NATURE OR NURTURE?
Amina was lucky. The Swiss are presumably no more prone to sleep-walking than any other nation but in late 20th Century Basel, an episode chillingly similar to the one in the last act of La Sonnambula ended not in joyous reconciliation but in serious injury and would have been fatal in Amina's time. A seventeen year old boy somnambulated straight out of his bedroom window onto the grass six floors below. He suffered several fractures and his spleen, stomach, colon and other useful abdominal organs burst through his diaphragm into his chest cavity but after some clever anaesthesia and stitch-work, he recovered completely. In a case reported from America, the somnambulist got as far as the window ledge of his 35th floor apartment before waking.
In one respect this young Swiss was more typical than his operatic counterpart. Most sleepwalkers are boys but most of them are not yet teenagers. In children between the ages of 4 and 6, sleepwalking is so common (up to a third have at least one episode) as to constitute a normal variant. Like bedwetting (from which, significantly, the Swiss boy also suffered) it is usually due to a slight delay in the growth, maturity and coordination of the brain and like bedwetting, most people grow out of it without treatment.
Sleep, for the technically minded, has several stages which are clearly demarcated by changes in the pattern of waves seen on the electroencephalogram (EEG) - a recording of the brain's electrical activity similar in principle to the more familiar electrocardiogram but more difficult to interpret because the brain is a much more complex organ than the heart. Normally, we pass through sleep stages 1 to 4, characterised by progressively slower waves on the EEG. This progression is followed by periods of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep - the stage most closely associated with dreaming, during which the brain is relatively active and, as the name indicates, the eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. Anyone who has watched a sleeping dog apparently chasing an imaginary cat may have seen something like this phenomenon. A few further cycles of stages 1-4 sleep followed by REM sleep occur before waking. Perhaps surprisingly, sleepwalking (which sometimes runs in families) does not usually occur during REM sleep but in the deeper stages - 3 to 4 - of non-REM sleep. Stage 3-4 sleep is most frequent in children and usually disappears (as, therefore, does sleep-walking) after the age of 40.
Somnambulists usually have blank expressions and seem to be indifferent to their surroundings. Their behaviour during the episodes, which typically last only a few minutes, often seems clumsy, purposeless or trivial but sometimes involves complex actions. If they wake up before returning to their own bed, they are often confused for a few moments and the usual advice is not to wake them unless they are in imminent danger. Sadly, they don't usually speak, let alone sing, but in many important respects, Sonnambula presents a clinically accurate picture, including the fact that somnambulism is commonest during the early part of the night. (And just as well: it might be difficult to devise a convincing plot that required the entire population of the village to be out and about and in chorus mode at 4 am)
Like most disturbances of human behaviour, sleepwalking can easily lead to arguments between those in the neuropsychiatric camp who think that the main problem is an abnormality in brain function (for which medication might, in principle, be helpful) and those of the psychodynamic persuasion who favour largely or exclusively psychological explanations and remedies. These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, of course. A physical abnormality affecting the brain or any other organ may be made worse by strong emotions. However, if the underlying physical abnormality or vulnerability isn't there in the first place, the condition associated with it will not occur however much stress and emotion are flying around. The trouble is that while most neuro-psychiatrists readily accept that manifestations of brain dysfunction can be modified by personality, stress, emotion and so forth, the psychodynamic inheritors of the Freudian mantle sometimes behave as if the brain, despite its marvellous complexity, is the only organ of the body that never goes on the blink. Under the microscope, one bit of liver, heart muscle or lung, looks very like any other bit. The brain is much more specialised and the various parts have some splendid Graeco-Roman names (hippocampus, mammillary bodies, locus coeruleus) which are almost a match for Freudian buzzwords like Oedipus and the vagina dentata.
Despite the conclusion of most studies that sleepwalking has 'no demonstrated associations with...psychopathology', and that it chiefly reflects cerebral rather than psychological abnormalities, sleepwalking, like dreaming, provides a fair amount of obvious grist for the Freudian mill. Dreams, for Freud, were famously "the royal road to the unconscious" but as we have seen, somnambulism and dreaming are typically separate and even incompatible activities, characterised by different and fairly specific neurophysiological processes. Although he started his professional life as a neurologist, Freud did not know this, which explains and perhaps excuses his use of 'somnambulism' to include the perambulations of a patient in a hypnotic trance - a horse of a very different colour.
To paraphrase Samuel Butler, 'God cannot rewrite history but psychoanalysts can. Perhaps that is why He tolerates their existence'. Despite Freud's well known caveat that there are times when 'a cigar is only a cigar', Freudians remain enthusiastically wedded to the idea that the complex is preferable to the simple, that sex is a universal rather than a common factor in human behaviour and relationships and to imaginative speculation rather than prosaic evidence - in short, to a baroque as opposed to a Spartan view of mental processes. Baroque is more fun, of course, with lots of interesting decorative details to divert attention from more important considerations, such as whether the foundations are sound but in the past quarter century, a seismic change has affected the status of these foundations. The change is that most people in psychiatry - who are at least as concerned as physicians or surgeons to concentrate on evidence-based treatments - do not now regard psychoanalytic theories as having much explanatory or therapeutic application.
Forty years ago, the psychiatric journals - particularly American ones - were full of learned papers incorporating psychoanalytic concepts and taking them for granted. Around the mid-1970s, these papers gradually disappeared off the face of the academic planet, surviving only in a few specialist psychoanalytical journals. The historian Edward Short has documented the way that the psychiatric establishment in America was very strongly influenced by psychoanalysis and its practitioners before, during and after WW2 and to a much greater extent than any other country. Indeed, it could be argued that as with some of the nastier Latin-American regimes, psychoanalysis could not have survived without US support. Now that that support has largely vanished, psychoanalysis has retreated to the more academically and heuristically undemanding habitats provided by journalism, the counselling industry and the arts - a Pollyanna archipelago where no beautiful hypothesis is ever slain by an ugly and inconvenient fact.
Can psychoanalysis help in cases like Amina's? It's true that she's an orphan and adopted, and both Freudians and neuropsychiatrists might reasonably make something of that. (Perhaps she was dropped on her head as a baby.) On the other hand, she is not obviously unhappy except on account of Elvino's jealousy and she seems popular with her peers for all the right reasons. Losing two parents might have seemed like carelessness to Lady Bracknell but wouldn't have been so unusual in a pre-Bazalgette age when lethal epidemics were still common (and when successful adoptions could occur without the involvement of platoons of social workers). Whatever the underlying causes, the Aminas of this world clearly need help if they're not going to end their days expiring dramatically (perhaps Traviata-style in some rustic Swiss 1830s version of a hospital soap-opera). So what can we actually do to help persistent sleep-walkers who repeatedly somnambulate into dangerous situations? (Amina's compatriot apparently somnambulated again in the orthopaedic ward just as soon as he was unencumbered by weights and pulleys.) Do we go for talking-and-listening or do we reach for the Prozac aerosol?
In many psychotherapy programmes, people are talked through their problems, with or without interpretations, until at some stage they say something like: 'Well, I guess I never really saw it that way before'. The cognitive behaviour therapist treating a patient with spider-phobia will only be successful when the patient comes in practice to see spiders as less frightening and not worth responding to as if they represented a mortal threat. For the patient of a cognitive therapist, progressively exposed to pictures of spiders, then to small dead spiders and finally a real live frisky one, this is likely to be seen on both sides as a matter of familiarity breeding contempt. The patient in psychoanalysis may be more likely to say: 'I have stopped being frightened of spiders because I have come to agree with your view that I am frightened of them because their long legs activate the repressed memory of a time when I saw my parents having sex'. (Which was more or less how Freud interpreted a child's fear of horses in the famous case of 'Little Hans'.) So long as both patients can cope with spiders, does it matter which therapy is used or whether the 'explanation' underpinning the treatment is correct? Isn't relief without explanation better than explanation without relief? (And let's not forget that many conditions improve, sometimes dramatically, once people recognise that they have a problem and go and see someone about it.)
If somnambulism, in a particular case, seems related to stress or distress, a bit of listening, probing, speculating and advising would seem a sensible beginning, especially if their bedroom isn't on the sixth floor. But what do you do if there is no obvious precipitant, or if there is an obvious source of tension or unhappiness but it cannot easily be resolved or come to terms with and they keep on walking despite understanding perfectly why it's happening? The first choice wouldn't actually be Prozac, which can sometimes make sleep problems worse, but that classic mother's little comforter of the 1960s. The texts say that sleeping-tablets of the benzodiazepine group, of which Valium (diazepam) is the best-known member, reliably suppress stage 3-4 sleep, thus removing the particular pattern of brain activity that is necessary for sleep-walking. Like drugs for bedwetting, it shouldn't usually have to be taken forever because somnambulism rarely outlasts adolescence. How fortunate for opera-lovers that Valium, though originally synthesised by a Swiss firm, wasn't around in the 1830s to complicate a touching little story of love and jealousy.
Written by my friend and colleague, London psychiatrist Colin Brewer. Posted with his permission.
Victoriana at St Paul’s College, Sydney University. The mad scene gone mad. Letter from Dr Bill Brooks, Sydney Alzheimer’s Disease researcher.
Many thanks for keeping us up to date on what’s been happening – we are sorry we missed Mr Bonynge’s birthday bash but unfortunately we were OS. No music or opera, but several galleries – the Huntington (great collection of portraits by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, et al.), the Getty, and LACMA (LA County Museum of Art, which has a major collection including several Rembrandts).
Mlle Brun (the former Angela Edwards, who sang for Mr Bonynge in the Auber and Thomas) has been appearing at St Paul’s College with her husband Julian in this year’s Victoriana season – unfortunately not accompanied by me. I would have given my eye teeth to have done it but was overseas for part of the season this year. A young Beardsley-esque pianist called Daniel Ward, in College after studying with Gerard Williams, played brilliantly.
After last year’s Queen of Night (Der Hölle Rache) followed by the Ride of the Valkyries, the powers that be managed to put together a slightly shortened version of Lucia’s Mad Scene, beginning with a very creditable “D’immenso giubilo” (helpfully translated as something like “With jolly minstrelsy...” sung by the small but enthusiastic ensemble of wedding guests, followed by a dramatic announcement from the kitchen door by Raimondo, to which the chorus replied, “What hath happened??” There followed Angela’s entrance in bloodstained dress through the kitchen door, bravura dramatics and then thrilling coloratura singing.
Subtle dramaturgical elements to assist the audience’s understanding were helpfully included. As Lucia chased the elusive flute runs, a canary was hung from a fishing rod for her to chase. When she caught it, it was found to contain a party popper which unfortunately exploded. There was some business with balloons which was reminiscent of Charles Chaplin and the Lohengrin Prelude in “The Great Dictator”. During the cabaletta “Spargi d’amaro pianto” she despatched the balloons one-by-one with a pin, and then each of the singers with a dagger! By the concluding high E flat, the stage was littered with bloodied corpses. The final coup-de-grace was administered by Raimondo, in this production a Franciscan friar, who stabbed Lucia before removing his cowl to reveal his mask as the phantom of the opera.
Written by Bill Brooks who has performed in the Victoriana festivities regularly for over twenty years.
Richard Bonynge’s 80th birthday concert. Angel Place Recital Hall. Sydney. Sunday 17th July 2010
It was a pleasure to hear 20 or more fine artists performing in concerted operatic pieces in this delightful 1250-seat auditorium at Wynyard in the city. The carefully chosen program was skillfully introduced by Moffatt Oxenbould. It involved some famous pieces as well as some quite obscure works, parallel to Mr Bonynge’s own career. There were six duets between female voices (and none was from Norma or Rossini’s Semiramide!) along with numerous trios and quartets. Each was masterfully accompanied by Sharolyn Kimmorley on a concert grand piano.
Most impressive of the evening perhaps was last, the finale from Faust, with Daniel Sumegi, Rosamund Illing and David Corcoran. It received a rapturous response from the enthusiastic audience.
The bass/baritone duet Suoni la tromba from I Puritani (and its entire preceding scena) with John Wegner and Daniel Sumegi also brought the house down. Hearing it from two such talented singers made one realise why it almost caused a riot when first performed in Paris. I had goose bumps on my heels! Something happened at the very end when neither singer went up to the high tonic note, even though both are capable of it – nothing lost, it was still magnificent!
Ms Cullen, in her Aida duet with Ms Aivale Cole, showed that she is an imposing, even incomparable Amneris, just as Ms Cole makes an excellent young dramatic Aida.
Fiona Janes and Ms Cole sang from Meyerbeer’s early opera Semiramide Reconosciuta ‘Ella e la fiamma mia’ . To my ear it was as Rossinian as Rossini, written when Meyerbeer was 28, almost 20 years before Huguenots and over 40 years prior to his final mature work, L’Africaine. It was another charming pearl in this enjoyable recital.
Other prominent artists were Jose Carbo, Amelia Farrugia, Emma Matthews and Catherine Carby amongst many others.
As the official party entered the hall after interval Mr Bonynge received a five minute standing ovation from the doting audience. He sat next to Bob Hawke in the first half. Margaret Whitlam, Megan Evans, Malcolm Donnelly and Lauris Elms were also present, along with many other admirers of the maestro.
The evening’s performances made one wonder yet again at the rostering of singers by the national company. Their current Fanciulla del West is a case in point. The soprano and tenor leads acquitted themselves well … yet they are not in the class of the singers they replaced (Gasteen and O‘Neill) nor of their baritone colleague John Wegner. Indeed, there were some bigger and more exciting voices on show in this concert for Mr Bonynge’s birthday. Rosamund Illing has a magnificent voice and dramatic presence. It is a mystery as to why we have not heard her for some years with the national company. Also, Australian opera audiences, at least in NSW and Victoria, have been denied Ms Cullen’s unique artistry in place of competent but far less qualified singers.
It is yet another fault that the national company is apparently not honouring Mr Bonynge’s long and dedicated service to their company and to opera generally in this country. They could have used their otherwise empty hall on a Sunday, made a few dollars and showcased some young (and not so young) artists. But Opera Australia management seems content to continue purveying mediocre performances, often using untrained, amplified voices and thus ignoring their own company’s published mission statement.
So that readers can see the broad range of this wonderful concert I have listed the artists and their songs below. Some new contestants and Richard Bonynge himself will be at St Paul’s Church on Sunday 25th July for the final scholarship adjudication of the Joan Sutherland Society (at 2pm).
At the end we were addressed in a slightly long winded speech by Alan Jones and all were exhorted to join the Joan Sutherland Society. Governor Marie Bashir spoke succinctly and sincerely about the amazing career of Richard Bonynge who responded with brief but gushing gratitude to all for the ‘unexpected pleasure’ of the evening.
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
Programme Part I
'Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso' from La Rondine - Giacomo Puccini Rosamund Illing, Amelia Farrugia, Aldo Di Toro, (replaced by Mr Choo), David Corcoran
'Si, fuggire' from I Capuleti e I Montecchi - Vincenzo Bellini Emma Matthews and Catherine Carby
'Fu la sorte dell'armi a'tuoi' from Aida - Giuseppe Verdi Aivale Cole and Bernadette Cullen
'Dal tuo stellato soglio' from Mose in Egitto - Gioacchino Rossini Daniel Sumegi, Henry Choo, Catherine Carby, Dominica Matthews
'Nedda.... Silvio' from Pagliacci - Ruggero Leoncavallo . Amelia Farrugia and Jose Carbo
'Ella e la fiamma mia' from Semiramide - Giacomo Meyerbeer Fiona Janes and Aivale Cole
'Suoni la tromba' from I Puritani - Vincenzo Bellini John Wegner and Daniel Sumegi
Programme Part II
'Fiero incontro' from Tancredi - Gioacchino Rossini Lorina Gore and Fiona Janes
'Over the hills and far away' from The Beggar's Opera - John Gay arranged by Richard Bonynge and Douglas Gamley Phoebe Humphreys and Sam Roberts-Smith
'Through the world' from The Bohemian Girl - Michael William Balfe Emma Moore, Henry Choo, James Roser
Duet from Haydee - Daniel Francois Auber Angela Brun and Henry Choo
'D'un Coeur qui t'aime' - Charles Gounod Emma Moore and Dominica Matthews
'Je suis le joli geolier' from La Perichole - Jacques Offenbach Dominica Matthews, Henry Choo, Sam Roberts-Smith
'Revons, c'est l'heure' - Jules Massenet Rosamund Illing and Catherine Carby
'Doubte la lumière' from Hamlet - Ambroise Thomas Angela Brun and James Roser
'Allerte! Allerte!' from Faust - Charles Gounod Rosamund Illing, David Corcoran, Daniel Sumegi
This evening's programme was created by Sharolyn Kimmorley & Moffatt Oxenbould
How are the mighty fallen. A Little Night Music. Sydney Opera House. Monday 26th June 2010 7.30pm.
While never really ‘mighty’, the Australian Opera company has done many highly satisfying productions over its long life since the 1950s. It has seen many of the world’s great singers on its stage. Such names include Blasi, Botha, Cole, Connell, Glossop, Horne, Jo, Kaash, Loringar, Marenzi, Marton, McIntyre, Milnes, Mitchell, Morris, O'Neill, Pavarotti, Resnick, Schorg, Sutherland, Te Kanawa, Terfel, Tourangeau, Vaness and Zschau. And many highly polished Australasian artists have formed the back-bone of the company (Allman, Austin, Begg, Carden, Cullen, Elkins, Gard, Janes, Martin, Pringle, Shanks, Smith and Summers to name just a few). Conductors, directors, designers and others have also often been of the highest calibre.
In contrast, this year’s opera opening was an inauspicious cold Monday evening performance of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. It only has one very famous song, ‘Send in the Clowns’, which was ‘sung’ by exemplary actor Sigrid Thornton who was unfortunately unable to do it justice. In fact she did not so much sing as wheezed, croaked and talked her way through it. While her dramatic portrayal was consummate, at least one in ten of her words ‘cracked’ or ‘broke’ as a glottal or chest sound. Yet the crowds applauded, if unenthusiastically. The embarrassing best the ‘Herald’ critic could say of the song was: “it was fine”. At one of her entrances the famous actor slipped precariously up-stage from behind some curtains which obscured one half of the rear of the revolving stage. Ms Thornton was not the only cast member to fall victim to the fast revolve being used. This unimaginative but utilitarian set design was used throughout the performance.
I found little stage energy or theatrical panache from most major or minor characters. Anthony Warlow played the middle aged lawyer well and was probably the pick of the night. Nancye Hayes was also in her element as the world-weary and sceptical grandmother. Erica Lovell who played the granddaughter Frederika was also excellent.
The strong amplification did not prevent much of the very clever dialogue being lost. I was closer to the stage than at least half the audience so others may have missed even more. And there were no subtitles, another miscalculation by this misguided company management.
So this ‘opera’ company, whose mission statement mentions only opera and not operetta or musical theatre, opens their new season without an opera. Only 4 out of 15 cast members have had significant opera experience to my best knowledge. The company’s major asset, the chorus, was absent. Even the orchestra was at half strength and amplified, something they have fought against for years. I ran into a long-serving chorus member on the way out. He had been attending the symphony concert next door, having seen the Sondheim dress rehearsal that morning.
How have the mighty fallen!? How indeed.
Comment by Andrew Byrne ..
PS – it may be that comparison with the current Broadway production (with Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Alexander Hanson) which I saw in March would be unfair … even the most minor character was full of dramatic energy, flair and talent (’look at me! I am here to entertain YOU!’) … unlike the Sydney version. I never thought I would see an Opera Australia performance where Kanen Breen had the best voice. Even though he only had about a dozen lines, his tenor voice was a reminder of the stark difference between a trained opera singer and a Broadway artist. And Breen is essentially a comprimario singer.
PPS - I have just heard some news about the West Side Story at the Sydney Casino Lyric Theatre and it is all good. And it appears to be cheaper than the Opera’s Broadway digression in what is probably a rather higher calibre show all-in-all. But it would be reckless of me to advise opera patrons to save their money and spend it on the other side of town. Parking is probably cheaper; there are Sunday matinees; there is a chorus (dancing) and there are many toe-tapping melodies to drive the blues away ... which is what the theatre is all about, isn’t it?
Hamlet at the Met. Ambroise Thomas. Wed 24th March 2010
This was a splendid performance of the Bard’s classic story in a less classic French opera, albeit with immortal moments. Hamlet was brilliantly portrayed by English baritone Simon Keenlyside who has gone from strength to strength, now doing one of the most dramatic mental undoings of the stage. His drinking song (O vin, dissipe la tristesse) was rousing with the mighty Met chorus, reminiscent of Sherrill Milnes in his heyday (he did this role in Sydney many years ago).
The curtailed play ‘within’ was a brilliant pas-de-deux ballet with the ‘girl’ played by a tall male dancer with rouged cheeks as per Shakespearean times when women could not be seen on stage (at least in England). Bizarre, but most enjoyable - and most effective in raising the regal ire. Following the king’s outburst, Hamlet, in “j’accuse” mode, leaps onto the royal banquet table and pours a pitcher of blood/wine onto the damask. He then wraps himself in the bloodied cloth and even drinks/gargles/spits between his taxing vocal lines with his velvet voice and strong characterisation. As if to add yet another degree of difficulty, the director had the table on wheels, an unnecessary and inappropriate device in my opinion (OHS issue pending if I were the house doctor).
Popular soprano Natalie Dessay pulled out several weeks before the opening due to illness (who would want to run an opera company?!). The second-cast Ophelia German soprano Marlis Petersen stepped up. And she has all that is takes for this oppressed and rejected character, culminating in her marathon mad scene. Rather than drowning which is mentioned in the text, in this production she slowly cuts vertical incisions on both wrists which bleed liberally, finally doing the same in her cleavage, creating a blood bath of technical difficult only matched by the phenomenal coloratura she was singing at the time. I wonder if this looked too surgical or artificial on the HD telecast … it looked perfect from my stalls seats. But in my opinion this is another liberty taken by directors - asking singers to do extraordinary things while they ‘chew gum’. Ms Petersen not only had to do all this blood letting in the last minutes of her cabaletta, ‘Pale et blonde’ but also had to sing the final climactic notes lying prostrate facing away from the audience. Ridiculous! Gone are the days of standing and delivering, yet all these dramatic demands cannot possibly improve the vocal line.
Jennifer Lamore was marvellous as the conniving queen Gertrude.
The opera’s music, like the story, is dark and brooding. Unfortunately the Met artistic management decided to omit most of the ballet music which to my mind is uplifting and crucial in balancing for the work as a whole. I have often said that it could replace Prozac in suitable cases.
I read that Hamlet was intended to be a tenor role but no suitable singer could be found (can someone lend me a tenor?!). So Thomas re-wrote it for a famous baritone of the time and it has been thus ever since. The other important minor roles were taken by Met singers of high calibre including Toby Spence, David Pittsinger, Matthew Plenk, Richard Bernstein and Maxim Mikhailov. James Morris has had a glorious bass/baritone career and is probably now beyond doing major roles such as Wotan. However, like Samuel Ramey, Paul Plishka and numerous others, the Met continues to use their services in appropriate and less arduous roles. In such cameo or minor roles such senior singers form an important connection with a previous age for young artists, something which unfortunately does not happen in Australia to any great extent despite the wealth of ‘senior’ talent around.
Louis Langrée conducted a solid score - my only criticism the absent ballet music.
The performance was filmed by perhaps 8 cameras across the auditorium which was distracting, especially for those nearby. I gather this was done as a back-up for the high definition cinema simulcast the following Saturday afternoon which will reach participating Australian and Japanese cinemas later in April. Due to the time difference it is largely Europe and the Americas which benefit from these matinee performances direct in real-time. These are usually then released onto DVDs and television and continue the Metropolitan Opera’s contribution to operatic posterity which goes back 50 years or more with the Saturday radio broadcasts.
This Hamlet production from Geneva is by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. It involves two large symmetrical wheeled sets cleverly designed to be castle exteriors on one side and domestic interiors on the other, both somewhat curved and thus self supporting.
The production and performance were of extremely high quality and I am sure that the cinema broadcast will be well received. However, it must be said that the opera itself is less than an enduring masterpiece, despite having numerous high points. Rather than one intermission it should have two to space the five acts (and accommodate my favourite ballet music!).
Aida Friday 26th March 2010 8pm. The Metropolitan Opera
My father (aged 83) and brother were in town from Australia for this Met performance with a new cast and conductor. We were fair bowled over by the incomparable quality and power of the show which was one of the high points of my opera-going experience. Chinese soprano Hui He made her Met debut and she proved to be a dramatic and vocal force to be reckoned with. She has done Turandot in Italy. The voice is large and well placed with an even production (happily there was no triumphal E flat attempted!). Her expressive diminuendos, portamento and soft high singing were exemplary. Not to be outdone, Salvatore Licitra sang the most creditable Radames I have heard in a long time. He sang Celeste Aida conquering the pianissimo ending which is written but which few tenors can manage. His dramatic portrayal was superb.
But perhaps the star of the night was Dolora Zajick (and some say the opera should be called ‘Amneris’). Her strong mezzo voice was again in evidence. Carlo Guelfi was also a fitting if slightly rough Ethiopian king.
Stefan Kocán was a suitable Pharaoh who leads the patriotic concerted piece ‘Su del Nilo’. As Ramfis Carlo Colombara was more than adequate.
Conductor Marco Armiliato kept the orchestra producing wonderful music at sympathetic paces. There is obviously chemistry happening in the pit unlike what happened on the La Traviata opening on Monday 29th March under Leonard Slatkin. On that night, as well as singers missing beats, I noted three brass players returning mid-act to miss a cue, an almost unforgivable lapse, like a sailor missing the boat.
Enough has been said and written about the magnificent Met Aida extravaganza directed by Sonja Frisell. All I can add is that despite their imposing nature the sets by Gianni Quaranta contain a major error. They all look well aged, despite the opera taking place in royal palaces and temples of one of the great waring dynasties (18th most likely). The columns, capitals, walls, hieroglyphics and other architectural detail each look just like the Egyptian items at the Metropolitan Museum. Yet in reality they would have been bright coloured and fresh, perhaps with gilding, lapis and ebony decoration. Of course we are all more familiar with the faded sepia tones, broken statues, incomplete cartouches, etc, so I am being picky.
I happened to spy Atlanta tenor Lawrence Brownlee in the foyer a few days ago. He had been supporting Met debut of colleague tenor Mr James Valenti. I complimented him on his excellent recent Met Almaviva and would eagerly await hearing (if not seeing live) the Armida with Ms Fleming. I said that I hoped he might come downunder some time as we were short of tenors … to which he replied that he had heard that our opera company no longer took overseas artists. Now I wonder where he could have heard that? Sadly it is largely true. This is 'small town', 'tall poppy' and ‘false economy’ syndrome all rolled into one. Many subscribers who have heard great opera in the past must seriously have reconsidered their expensive and poor quality opera-going experience. Contrary to their mission statement, much of it is not “opera” at all nowadays with musicals, G&S and experimental works dominating true opera. And the average prices in Sydney are far higher than the Met. ‘D’ reserve has disappeared and standing room is restricted by fire laws, thus losing an important cheap “gateway” for young people to learn about opera. *Shame* on opera management in Australia.
Boys in the Band. The Penthouse Apartment, 37 W26th St, NYC 7pm Sun 28th March 2010 The playwright attended!
Just the anticipation of seeing this play was a pure delight. I have known about it all my life but never seen it, nor the movie. My mother went to see it in Sydney over 30 years ago and talked about it for a year or more! But the surprise of the night could not have been predicted by me.
The play was fresh, (almost) timeless and very familiar. Little had changed (rotary telephones notwithstanding; $20 no longer buys a hustler) and the play had every detail one could imagine about gay life in the city pre-HIV and pre 9/11. It is essentially a private gay birthday party with an unexpected and unwelcomed ‘straight’ arrival.
The play’s end, like its beginning, was marked by the young visitor from Long Island attending to each of the lamps around the apartment. After some generous applause, initially in the dark, we were asked by the director to stay in our seats as they introduced an old gent called Mart Crowley - the man who wrote the play! Only in New York!!
I was able to chat with Mr Crowley for a while about the Australian connection, queens through the ages and other things. He said that his play had a bumpy ride in Australia. Despite a successful seven month season in Sydney in 1968, when it moved to Melbourne the cast were apparently arrested and spent a night in custody due to a complaint to the Vice Squad. The episode made a mockery of the laws which apparently were changed shortly afterwards. In Adelaide some minor changes were required after an uncensored version was given for the Attorney General and his staff. I got this from a Google search and can only presume it was accurate (http://www.ains.net.au/~raystan/boys.html).
Mr Crowley kindly autographed my program as he was spirited off to a post party event. He seems to have written an almost timeless play and I am sorely embarrassed that I never saw it originally as most people who at least saw the movie if they missed the original runs of the play.
La Traviata. 8pm Monday 29th March 2010 Metropolitan Opera House.
This opera had some high points as well as some low ones. Angela Gheorghiu has a gorgeous voice but she seemed out of sorts and that beauty was only in evidence intermittently. Unlike the description of her by Papa Germont in Act II, she displayed little elegance and poise in her dramatic approach on the night. On many occasions she shook her head, sending the two sides of her flowing hair to the wind as she ‘skipped’ to the right then the left in what appeared to be a calculated yet awkward and ‘girlish’ manoeuvre. It did not help her singing as she got out of time with the conductor frequently. In two or three of these occasions, one with Mr Hampson, she caused a ‘train wreck’ of incoordination with the podium.
Her ‘Ah forse lui’ was less than sublime and she took major applause in the middle (before ‘Follia’) as if she wanted a break. At times she sang recitative pianissimo for no apparent reason, especially towards the end of the opera. She sounded as if she was intending to nail the E flat at the end of act I, omitting the second ‘il mio pensier’ but then just ending on a sustained A flat, a note most mezzo-sopranos can sing with ease.
The surprise and delight of the night was the Met debut of young American tenor James Valenti after numerous auspicious roles overseas including at La Scala. He has several of the important qualities required of a great singer. Tall, handsome, high notes, excellent breathing for a long vocal line, accurate pitch (not always THAT accurate on the night), lovely portamento, beautiful quality voice and good acting abilities. He was clearly very nervous and lost his timing ever so briefly in Act I before the Brindisi. However on balance it was an auspicious start for a young man who might turn out to be the (next) great white hope we have lost in Mr Villazon’s absence. It is tough now that Pavarotti is gone to g-d, Carerras is retired and Domingo sings baritone roles or conducts.
Act II saw Mr Valenti sing De miei bollenti spiriti as well as the full cabaletta Oh mio rimorso infamia including the sustained high C at the end (almost unheard-of at the Met or most anywhere else!). After a powerful and exciting vocal line he ended by nailing the upper tonic, held it respectably and then ran off stage to great and well deserved applause.
Unfortunately Mr Hampson and Ms Gheorgiou managed to almost destroy their second act duet (others might have called it a ‘train wreck’). It seemed to me that the soprano just was not looking at the conductor - she might have been doing what we were told in the program notes that Nellie Melba started singing Dit’alla giovine facing up-stage.
Mr Hampson is possessed of a full bodied and gratifying voice, showing his rightly deserves the Warren, Merrill, Milnes succession of anointed American baritones. He sang ‘Di provenza il mar il suol’ with strength and elegance, gaining enormous applause. For unknown reasons he left out the cabaletta so hated by some musicologists (in fact we are all musicologists in my view!). I have heard people say: 'Verdi did not really mean to write that cabaletta' … but he did! And it should be included in my view. The act thus ended precipitously with Alfredo finding the invitation on Violetta’s desk and declaring he will attend to take his revenge.
As Nellie Melba pointed out 100 years ago, most people in the audience would probably not notice, nor would they therefore care less about particular details of singing or repertoire (’sing them muck’).
The timing problems are obviously a combination of conductor and singers - it takes two to tango. Leonard Slatkin may not have been free of guilt in the numerous episodes of incoordination between the pit and stage. It was the first night and also nerves or inadequate rehearsal might each also have played a role. Despite numerous high points, this was not an overall satisfying performance in my view. That is a disadvantage of seeing the opening performance of anything - it is always the most unpredictable and rarely the best artistically. This is in stark contrast to the Aida on Friday which was electrifying in almost every respect.
The Nose by Shostakovich. Metropolitan Opera. Thurs March 11 2010 8pm.
I knew that this opera would be a challenge for me but I went along with a positive attitude despite some trepidation. Clearly for people who like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they would like!
For me, even reading Gogol’s short story on which the opera is based did not help. I found the opera to be a meaningless cacophony with ugly vocal excesses albeit in a brilliant and original visual production by a William Kentridge. There was no intermission and the piece went for about 95 minutes. Yet the crowds seemed delighted with the bizarre occurrences on stage and in the pit. The season of 6 performances is a sell-out and reviews are positive so I am clearly in the minority. I heard complaints that there is no HD video broadcast planned this season - perhaps later.
Valery Gergiev conducted Paolo Szot (baritone) as Kovalyov, Gordon Gietz (tenor) as The Nose and Andrei Popov (tenor) as the police inspector. I waited in vain to hear the words ‘nostrils’ or ‘flared’. ‘Sniff’ was used in relation to a joke about haemorrhoids and snuff.
The story is theatre of the absurd. That should be no stranger to the opera house where bizarre and unbelievable stories are common in successful operas (I just saw a DVD of La Sonnambula which is also crazy). Yet for me this opera was a failure since it lacked the two essential ingredients of visual and vocal beauty. We don’t need much, but some contrasts between the desirable and the unpleasant are necessary to my mind. This opera seemed to have no defined vocal arias nor melodic orchestration which complimented dramatic situations in the libretto. Some stressed lines of singing were written too high for the tenor to sing, creating a strained, ugly and uncomfortable noise from someone trained to do the opposite.
Nevertheless, one’s interest was certainly kept engaged with the various scenes complimented by brilliant B&W projections of shadow wire figures. These started as a central curtain projection of a slowly rotating silhouette of what looked like a complex mobile mechanism which finally coalesced in an instant to a static human face, possibly Stalin. The brilliant effect caused applause, yet the device did not seem related to the story in any particular way from my vantage point. It also interrupted what passed for an overture. Other images were horses galloping (on one occasion a limping horse with three legs) and these were sometimes used to give the appearance of dragging large pieces of the set around the stage.
There were scenes in a barber’s shop (strangely set with the residence below); bedroom; village square; bridge; newspaper offices, etc. The (absurd) drama unfolded, essentially of a man who wakes up to find his nose is gone and his face flat while another man in the town finds a nose in his breakfast and tries to dispose of it without being detected. The rest just eluded me.
As well as the normal sub-titles we were presented with frequent convenient stage projections of words, sometimes identical to our libretto titles (English and German choices this time). At times however, there were random and provocative words projected in various languages and fonts and colours, even sideways and upside down. The text disambiguation seemed to be an attempt by the production team to compliment and already confusing story.
The orchestration appeared to be constantly aiming for what one could not expect or predict. The usual orchestral instruments were complimented by a piano I believe with other keyboards and additional percussion instruments. One bracket consisted of a five minute loud drum solo. While this arguably had something to do with the libretto, it became boring and repetitive after the first minute or so of drums and cymbals.
If an honours undergraduate drama student had been asked to do the most outrageous and bizarre theatrical things on a large budget this would have gained top marks. Yet it was all completely meaningless for me … as well as another regular opera subscriber who was sitting beside me. Yet for another person in our row, this was her third performance and she was convinced that it should be a life-changing experience for all participants. So each to their own! I just missed the magic which others described. Shostakovich is a special taste and think I just missed out on the essential chromosome to appreciate such Russian cultural material.
Eglise Gutierrez in recital at Merkin Hall, Kaufman Center, NYC.
Ms Eglise Gutierrez gave a most impressive recital at this relatively small venue mid-week to an enthusiastic audience. She is a Cuban American soprano who is performing all the famous bel canto roles in the middle sized opera houses at the moment. She has sung several major roles for the Opera Orchestra of New York, a company which seems to have disappeared from its usual prominence during the recent world financial crisis. Ms Gutierrez’s choice of repertoire was pretty wide ranging and she did not disappoint. In fact, her arias and Spanish songs were little short of amazing.
The very first piece most sopranos would not even dare consider singing, let alone its full extent. The almost impossible and hauntingly beautiful Russian Nightingale song was followed by a Spanish one La maja y el ruiseñor by Granados.
She had E-flats, E naturals and a couple of spare F’s I do declare. She was dressed in all black for the first half, looking every bit the diva. Her canary yellow spiral lace layer dress in the second half was one of the most extraordinary I have ever seen on a woman (thus I exclude Mardi Gras, of course).
After ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’, our soprano was joined by a fine flautist for the Proch theme and variations, degree of difficulty: unmeasurable.
For the opening of the second half, Ms Guttierez had begged the audience’s indulgence to hear the first encore at the start of the second part – which seemed rather odd … yet it was the entire final scene from La Sonnambula, Oh se una volta sola … Ah no credea mirati … Ah non giunge. It was a phenomenon and the small private audience (with piano and flute) went wild with applause at all the pieces. Her FINAL encore (but one) was Ah forse lui … Sempre libera from Traviata act I. Amazingly (and “only in New York”), a man who appeared to be the video operator suddenly became the tenor, Alfredo, who sings a couple of lines at the end of the Traviata excerpt. This was delightfully bizarre the erstwhile cameraman broke into fabulous song with a strong and accurate youthful tenor voice (off stage as required by the original!).
We were sitting near Eve Queller the Carnegie Hall conductor whose company (OONY) has gone broke, sad to say, with the economic downturn. There was a flurry in the second half as the star realised that in the front row on the right side of the theater was Licia Albanese, a star of yester-year, and always a supporter of young artists. Remarkably, she is nearly 100 years old, and made some of the most enduring early micro-groove opera recordings! Only in New York!
Stephen Sondheim: A Little Night Music. The Walter Kerr Theater, West 48th Street.
As if the composer’s 80th birthday concert the previous night was not enough, we attended Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and Alexander Hanson at the classic Walter Kerr Theater built in 1921 (originally The Ritz Theater).
It was a splendid and clever production involving a set of about 8 or 10 large smoked glassed doors in a curve across the rear of the stage. This became the great outdoors of the country estate in the second half for the ‘dirty weekend’ which became so terribly complicated.
The beginning was brilliant with Stephen R. Buntroon as the young religious son playing the ‘cello on stage … while his father and new young wife decide they will go to the theater. The plot really gets going when old thespian faces are recognised, not always with happy memories.
‘Ordinary mothers’, ‘Send in the clowns’ and numerous other classic pieces punctuated clever concerted pieces, duets and dance scenes. Ms Lansbury, as the grandmother, appeared in most of her scenes playing patience on the table of her wheel-chair. She has an instantly recognisable voice and persona … and looked perfectly fit and agile in her curtain calls. Likewise Ms Zeta-Jones, Mr Hanson and the rest sang and acted well for a highly polished and exciting show.
Although listening to musicals is not my favourite pastime, the energy and excitement of the actors and audience responses were infectious. To my taste both the 8 piece orchestra and actors were over-amplified, especially for a small theatre with one about 1000 seats.
Another unforgettable experience about New York theatre is coming out of the building onto the pavements at the same time as dozens of other Broadway shows … and then running the gauntlet of the crowds making their way to the Subways, pubs clubs and hotels nearby.
New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Sondheim: The Birthday Concert.
7.30pm Monday 15th March 2010
We were privileged to obtain premium mid-orchestra seats for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert tonight at Avery Fisher Hall. The great man himself was sitting a few rows in front of us and he even took a bow and said a (very) few words at the end (“Roosevelt said that first you are young, then you are middle aged, then you are ‘wonderful’ - thank you all very, very much!”).
The entire stage was ‘wrapped’ in a metre of red satin ‘ribbon’ including a huge bow/rose. Each number had original lighting projections below the red giving a festive feel to the venue. The concert was professionally and tastefully arranged with split second timing.
It was one of the most moving concerts I have attended with many of the greats of Broadway performing on the platform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra hosted by David Hyde Pierce who also sang. Despite over a dozen sterling performances from Broadway stars, the night was probably stolen by old-timer Elaine Strich along with Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Mandy Patinkin, George Hearne, Bernadette Peters and about a dozen others.
Before Sondheim made his name musically, he wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein and so we first heard “I want to be in America” from West Side Story sung by six Musical first-ladies. Then we heard an ‘ordinary mother’ from Little Night Music followed by a number of solos and duets, some from performers who created the roles.
The second half started with a ‘sweet parting’ pas-de-deux based on the movie ‘Reds’ for which Sondheim wrote the music. It was beautifully danced by Blaine Hoven and partner Maria Riccetto. The finale consisted of six Broadway divas dressed in red seated in a semi-circle singing in turn. Finally to an enraptured house Ms Strich sang “I’m still here”. LuPone had sung “The ladies who lunch” as well as a complex and clever duet/trio from Sweeney Todd “Have a little … priest!” with Michael Cerveris and George Hearne (who had each played the demon barber of Fleet Street with LuPone). Nobody sang ‘Bring in the clowns’ (probably everyone would have like to have done it).
Perhaps the most moving part of the night was towards the end of the night when the host announced that ‘a few friends’ from Broadway had agreed to come up-town to join the birthday celebration - being Monday much of Broadway was closed. At that point about 300 black clad singers/actors filed into the Avery Fisher auditorium from each and every entrance. About a hundred of them filed onto the stage with the rest singing a Sondheim excerpt (‘Sunday’) from the aisles and entrances to the hall as the orchestra played on. Hence everyone in the theatre could hear both singers close up as well as the glorious ensemble.
Sweeney Todd is the only Sondheim work I am really familiar with but other pieces rang bells of course. It was indeed a gala night and a broadcast and DVD can be expected with eager anticipation.
Comments by Broadway novice, Andrew Byrne (visiting from Sydney, Australia).
Barber of Seville - Metropolitan Opera Thurs 4th March 2010
This performance reminded me that Barber is a comic masterpiece - a fact which had almost eluded me after some recent second rate performances. This Met performance was like any human endeavour at its highest level: being based on a good formula, it should be exciting, appear easy and have elements of the Olympic Games and Guinness Book of Records all rolled into one. And that is what the capacity audience got at this performance, the last in a run beset by illness and replacements. It may have been the first performance when everything (well, almost everything) went according to plan.
This production by Bartlett Sher breaks with many prevailing traditions. He utilised a wooden plank stage extension going right around the orchestra. The stage itself was bare apart from sporting numerous mobile double doors, each in its own architrave. One was surmounted with a balcony with rear ladder as required by the story, like Romeo and Juliet.
This production premiered a couple of years ago with Juan Diego Florez as a sensational Almaviva … but Lawrence Brownlee was a fine artistic force in the current production (Barry Banks did the previous performance due to illness). Brownlee's Ecco ridente was marvellous, ending on the high tonic to rousing applause. This was just one of many, many optional extras put in by almost all of the principal singers in the true original spirit of bel canto. Even Berta’s aria was ornamented by Claudia Waite. It is a great shame that this was not a scheduled national radio broadcast.
Diana Damrau is a glorious ‘high octane’ soprano with a few extended high notes which she can make sound like a glass harmonica. She is beautiful and a fine comic actress to boot. Her ‘Una voce poco fa’ came without a break as she simply walked through one of the many doors for her entrance.
Franco Vassallo is also singing Figaro this season at La Scala and it is obvious why. He took complete control with his ‘Largo al factotum’ and ensuing famous duet with the tenor.
The patter song of the guardian Dr Bartolo (Maurizio Muraro) admonishing Rosina for her excuses was little short of amazing, ending as it did in front of the conductor. Many ensembles and duets took place, at least in part, on this platform, changing the acoustics significantly - and for the better. Obviously, the closer one is to a singer the more powerful the voice will sound. In addition, the orchestra was partially obscured and it seems somewhat reduced in size as well.
In the same way, as Don Basilio, Samuel Ramey demonstrated everything that it is to be a professional (and many decades at that!). He must be one of the few singers left standing from the last “golden age” which included Marilyn Horne, Sherrill Milnes, Beverley Sills, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and the rest.
There was careful appreciation of the libretto throughout the performance. We were presented with numerous major stage ‘gags’, some straight out of the text like the crash in Dr Bartolo’s larder as the shaving equipment is being sought - indeed it became an explosion with sparks, noise and smoke to prove it. Inevitably Ambroglio, played by actor Rob Besserer, was the butt of the joke. Other gags, large and small, seemed to come from both the text but some from the vivid imagination of the production team. An oddity ended Act I in which the rear scrim slowly rose to reveal a blinding white backdrop and an ever-so-slowly descending enormous anvil above the rear of the stage. As our protagonists sang the complex concluding piece at the front of the stage, Ambroglio tries to deal with a cart of giant pumpkin gourds which was dragged on by a donkey. With the animal and driver departing, we saw a dishevelled and panicking Ambrogio trying to warn of the impending doom which finally occurred on the last note of the act as the enormous weight above dropped and crushed the entire cart with bits of pumpkin, spoked wheels, etc flung asunder. Weird! It did not add to the drama to my mind.
Another gag involved Mr Brownlee seriously drunk in the second act wielding a large soldier’s sword which chopped the trunk of a large ornamental orange tree. After a little encouragement the tree fell, pinning a screaming Ambroglio to the floor. Not to be outdone by Juan Diego Florez, Mr Brownlee sang the “Cessa di piu resistere” scene which is familiar from the end of La Cenerentola. He ended on a sustained B flat according to a man sitting next to me, a concertmaster who had his own tuning fork. It was a sensational end to a glorious scena leading to the happy finale.
All in all a very, very satisfying night at the opera. Maurizio Benini conducted. Sets by Michael Yeargan.