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24 January, 2010

Manon Gala Sydney Opera House Fri 22 Jan 2010

Manon - Jules Massenet - Sydney Opera House Friday 15th Jan 2010

This opera gala was another success in nearly every respect. For reasons known only to the current management, five acts and six scenes were only broken by one long interval, not two, for this revival of Stuart Maunder's traditional and rather beautiful production. The continuous action can be torture on the singers' vocal cords. It is also tough for the orchestra/chorus, difficult for the audience and a profit-buster for the house bar and caterers. While it shortens a long night at the opera, it does so at an unacceptable price in my view. Massenet apparently intended four breaks! But what would HE know?

Amelia Farrugia shows that she has what it takes - and that is a whopping big talent, voice and presence to carry off this enormous role. Her town square gavotte song drew a great ovation from those on stage and in the theatre. She spanned the gamut of emotions from teenage adventure, intimate love to public adulation and beyond with her own death scene.

Julian Gavin is possessed of a warm, natural tenor voice and was magnificent, especially from the St Suplice scene onwards. His 'En fermant les yeux' (The dream) seemed somewhat 'studied' but by the time he sang 'Ah fuyez, douce image' in the church scene he was incomparable, as he was in the tragic finale.

Stephen Bennett was an excellent father figure. It is hard to understand why he was not seen or heard for so long but gratifying his substantial talents are now being used again, albeit in some smaller roles such as the doctor in Traviata (which could well be played by an aspiring newcomer).

Possibly Australia's pre-eminent young baritone Jose Carbo likewise is 'under-parted' as the eligible Lescaut, cousin of Manon. Both Bennett and Carbo should be singing big roles, title roles and be 'stars' of the opera, yet neither has been given a significant challenge in some years. Carbo did a superlative Barber of Seville in 2004. It is hard to understand why someone who has a contract with La Scala is currently only singing secondary (if still substantial) roles in Sydney. Much more common, sadly, is the reverse where less capable singers are given tasks beyond their abilities as part of casting mysteries which happen in the national company.

This production has Kanen Breen portraying Guillot de Monfontaine as a campy calculating and unpleasant 'dirty old man'. This seems unnecessary when the character can, at least initially, be portrayed as a sympathetic if slightly pathetic sexed-up old man, only later to become the litigious protagonist. While we can never know exactly what Massenet and his librettist wanted, I doubt if it was the caricature played by Breen. The director has him drawing attention to himself rather than the opera's story line in my view.

I still find that Manon can be long and difficult - unless it is done to perfection - I recommend the Netrebko and Villazon DVD from Berlin. Apparently Sir Thomas Beecham is quoted as saying that Manon by Massenet would take precedence over JS Bach's Brandenburg Concertos if there were ever a choice to be had.

We should never lose sight of the fact that the orchestra and chorus performing with our national opera company in Sydney are of a high standard. Maestro Emmanuel Plasson conducted inconspicuously and with appropriate aplomb.

Throughout the hall on two Fridays in a row there were company members sitting in good seats, presumably free or at reduced prices, showing that even on a Friday night in high tourist season with one of the best known operas in the canon there seems to be a problem with the opera company's marketing. The previous Friday's Tosca opening was a full house but this Manon I estimate was only 85% sold and many seats clearly were 'papered'.

It is gratifying to have experienced two successful openings in a fortnight but this needs to be followed up with continued high quality opera and good marketing. Too often in recent years performances have been marred by replacements, ill-prepared singers and even absent understudies. Furthermore, the best seats are now $297 which is more than the best 'orchestra' seats at the Met in New York. Yet "rush" seats are sold for $50! While this is a bargain, it is also a slap in the face for regular subscribers who are the main supporters of the company.

Comments by Andrew Byrne.

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10 January, 2010

Tosca at the Sydney Opera House directed by Christopher Alden.

Tosca - Friday, 8 January 2010 - Sydney Opera House.

Dear Colleagues,

Despite all the critical hoopla over this updated production I enjoyed it and would rather like to see it again. The solo voices were magnificent, orchestra in fine form under Andrea Licata and company chorus singers doing their usual professional job.

The mod-drab production would take several pages - even to describe the essentials - and others will do that I dare say. Tosca does not jump in front of the A-Train in Act III but she does not jump off the Castel Sant’Angelo either! You will have to go along to see how the ending of this ‘shabby little shocker’ has been made - certainly more shabby and in some respects more shocking.

We saw the clever arrival in church (actually the vestry) of the Marchese Attavanti in Act I during the Te Deum commotion (the Te Deum has become a parish raffle). Played by Sian Pendry, the beautiful blue-eyed blonde of the story, normally only seen in her portrait, manages to hide in, behind and then atop the confessional box which also serves as the family capella. She responds mutely to the various pieces of news about her brother, the Napoleonic advances and Scarpia’s bad behaviour. Act III is run straight from the end of Act II and it all seems to ‘work’ somehow with the Marchese singing the sad shepherd boy’s song (in tune, unlike some boy sopranos). Her brother’s ‘body’ is brought in, obviously a rag-doll mock-up, and strung up as demanded in the libretto but not normally seen on stage (and to the sister’s mute horror).

There were innumerable other details to this production, many stemming from the story (like the electrocution used for torture) and others seemingly out of nowhere. All were thought provoking and some were quite humorous. Spoletta and Sciarrone were presented as disinterested henchmen who despised Scarpia, just like everyone else. They even conspire to facilitate his stabbing. Surprisingly, each gets a laugh at times in this otherwise grisly thriller.

The death of Cavaradossi remained a mystery to me, as if he just died of delayed electric shock and somehow Tosca could tell as much from the other side of the stage: ‘Presto su, Mario’. There were a few other incongruities - such as how did Cavaradossi ‘fail to recognise’ Angelotti when he was still in the next room (or confessional)?

Rosario La Spina sang brilliantly. His high notes were ringing, his low register secure but with a few glottals and possibly phlegm briefly present. His acting was just fine and compared to Pavarotti he was academy award material. He even youthfully bounded up a tall window frame with Angelotti to make their escape from Scarpia and his hounds in Act I.

Ms Takesha Meshé Kizart gave a sensuous and sensational performance. In contemporary dress and literally ‘to kill’, she was jealous, loving, superior and finally stoic in the face of death. Boots, dress, Ray-Bans and gossamer hair. Her Vissi d’arte was a triumph and the ovation she received ecstatic. The final audience applause included a huge and prolonged standing ovation by a large majority of the stalls patrons but also with a small number with prominent boo’s, largely when the design team finally came out for their own curtain call.

John Wegner, like his stage colleagues, rose to great heights with his portrayal of Scarpia. He had to eat pizza, assault numerous males and rape the heroine and all while belting out a grand velvet tsunami of vocalism. Accolades in anybody’s language.

It must be rare to fine a Sacristan with a louder voice than the other principal singers. Warwick Fyfe did a sterling if coarse and unsubtle job in the minor clerical part … also doubling as jailer in Act III which took place as a continuum from Act II without a break still in the vestry of the church on (or off) the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Fyfe smoked, coughed, grumbled, genuflected and lit the 12-volt miniature of Jesus … while also doing the gaoler’s bidding in Act III.

Full marks also to Maestro Michael Black and his chorus who provided an excellent and original Te Deum scene and then the off-stage cantata in Act II. Puccini called for an off stage chorus in numerous operas including Madam Butterfly. The chorus appreciate this as they can scrub up, do their last scene and go home early. Puccini also knew the benefits both in drama and practicalities of having his soprano sing initially off stage, a device he does not only use in Tosca. ‘Mario, Mario, Mario’ (shades of ‘Maria, Maria, Maria’ by Bernstein).

The opera finished early, allowing us to take a full and wholesome supper along with the inevitable operatic autopsy.

Unanswerable questions will arise about whether it is appropriate to do anything with this opera after the glorious authentic enstagements of Copley, Zeffirelli and others. If your answer is ‘no thanks’ you need to stay home. Otherwise, with great singing and Puccini’s immortal score this will not fail to exotically entertain.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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