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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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