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28 September, 2010

Rigoletto falls flat in Sydney. Inaudible “maledizione”! Ossia ‘The silent curse’.

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.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..