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31 March, 2010

"Boys in the Band" in New York: the playwright attended! [OFF TOPIC!]

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 (

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.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

30 March, 2010

Met Traviata - debut of Mr Valenti already taking risks!

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.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

[post script: please note that shortly after this posting it was announced that the conductor would be replaced for the remainder of the season. The reasons given seemed euphemistic. See

21 March, 2010

Shostakovich and "The Nose" at the Met.

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.

Web site for the short story by Gogol found on Google!

An insightful review found on an internet search:,0,5768315.column

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

19 March, 2010

Eglise Gutierrez recital - best value for high soprano singing.

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 ruiseƱor 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!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

YouTube exerpt 'Ah non giunge' - link on

Sondheim's Night Music on Broadway - great fun!

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.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

18 March, 2010

Sondheim turns 80 - Big Birthday at Lincoln Center

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).

12 March, 2010

Barber of Seville at the Met Thurs 4th March 2010

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.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

All casts can be found on the Metropolitan Opera web site

Boheme with Netrebko on this Saturday night in Zeffirelli’s gigantean Met production.