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05 July, 2010

'A Little Night Music' at the Sydney Opera House. Too Little, Too Late.

How are the mighty fallen. A Little Night Music. Sydney Opera House. Monday 26th June 2010 7.30pm.

Dear Colleagues,

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?