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13 September, 2011

Macbeth - Great opera returns to Sydney.

Macbeth. Sydney Opera House Saturday 10th September 2011 8pm

Dear Colleagues,

This was a worthy opening of Verdi’s early opera Macbeth. The current Montreal co-production by Rene Richard Cyr (sets by Claude Goyette) is a single set of surrounding tree trunks and branches making for shadows laterally and a central focused ‘faux revolve’ with angular concretions which facilitate the main stage action. The four acts were separated by only one intermission making the feats of Elizabeth Whitehouse and Peter Coleman-Wright all the more impressive as, like the audience, they lacked the time to get over the energy and inertia of one act before starting the next.

These two veteran performers had most of the requirements needed for these demanding roles. The young Verdi was writing for singers who scarcely existed in his day and who come up but rarely even today. Ms Whitehouse sings incisively with a direct and accurate line. While she has a distinctive and pleasing timbre there were some problems with intonation at the highest register. Her acting was exemplary and it is a shame that we have heard her so seldom over the years during which she pursued a successful career overseas.

Mr Coleman-Wright started out weakly, almost as if he were ill. But he was either ‘saving’ himself or else purposely adding to the characterisation of Macbeth. While he lacks some of the heft to be ideal, he rose to considerable vocal and dramatic heights when required in this long and complex role. He well deserved the major acclaim he received from the audience.

Daniel Sumegi was a creditable Banquo, having a true basso range with a handsome almost ‘gravel’ quality worthy of the greats of his ilk. Sadly for bass fans Banquo is killed at half-time. Teresa La Rocca performed well as the handmaiden and she appeared to fill in some of the very high notes during the concerted passages.

Rosario La Spina played McDuff, the character with the great show-piece ‘Ah la paterna mano’. While he sang this flawlessly from a technical point of view, his voice seems to have developed a ‘closed’ sound rather than the thrilling ‘open’ quality of ‘ere. This might have something to do with his ever more imposing stature. With the tragic death of Salvatore Licitra this week we need to appreciate just how rare good tenors like these men are and how they all need to look after themselves.

It matters little whether the witches appear from a forest thicket, a grassy glade or a rocky outcrop. Likewise their garb could be that of a char lady or a wet suit … in this case the former. But most important is that they sing and act like witches which is exactly what they did for us on the night. I recall a production with Gwyneth Jones in San Francisco in the mid-90s in which the witches clung to ropes and moved up and down as they sang their evil predictions – and they sang no better than our excellent Sydney chorus this week.

Conductor Andrew Molino put in some quite contrasted tempi, some fast, some slow but commanding over an excellent overall orchestral performance. The gents’ chorus, while not having the demands of the witches, was equally professional as we have come to expect under the tutelage of chorus master Michael Black.

This is a rare opportunity to see Verdi’s early Shakespearian gem, an opera he reworked substantially twenty years later. Like Nabucco and I Lombardi, it has a patriotic call-to-arms, and also like his other early works there are some almost impossible vocal lines and a degree of relatively trite melodic invention amongst the lyric best of the maestro. It is said that perhaps more than any other composer Verdi learned new things with every new work during each of the seven decades in which he wrote operas. I also heard a quote from a colleague that Verdi wanted Lady Macbeth to sing, ‘not like an angel, but like a devil!’

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

27 August, 2011

Lakmé. Sydney Opera House.

Lakmé. Delibes. Sydney Opera House. Wednesday, 24 August 2011

This was a thrilling performance of a true French masterpiece - even if it may not be to everyone’s taste. And the reason was the world-class performance of Emma Matthews in what might be her ideal part to date, vocally as well as dramatically. It made me wonder how Joan Sutherland was credible in the same role … but she was, of course, with a commanding Nilakantha in Clifford Grant. I thought Stephen Bennett was very fine as the proud Brahmin father - and his diction was like a native according to two Parisians seated near me. Emma Matthews’ Bell Song in Act II was coloratura pin-point perfection and was rapturously received. Not only did the soprano sing in each register with flawless accuracy, her glorious capacity to sustain notes at the very top of the range with ease made this experience an unforgettable pleasure for those lucky enough to be in the audience.

The famous duet (Viens, Mallika) is just one of several hit tunes heard in Act I which is wall-to-wall melody. Mezzo-soprano Domenica Matthews (no relation, I gather) gives a strong performance as Mallika. Roxane Hislop, Angela Brun and Jane Parkin made an excellent trio of white ladies in India.

An added pleasure of the night was the superb performance by tenor Aldo di Toro as Gerald. His voice is highly placed and natural sounding with a resonant squillo and pleasing timbre. While he looks like many-a-tenor on stage, he acts creditably and certainly cuts a figure of his military character.

The settings by Mark Thompson are a colourful Hindu fantasy-land in the tropical jungle … and it all ‘works’, including the congested and cacophonous market scene where the chorus shows its worth to glowing effect. The death scene in the hut in the woods is moving and mercifully brief for a final act. Suicide by Datura flower in India or Oleander in Sri Lanka is a sad end indeed (take note Dr Nitschkie).

The orchestra and off-stage bands were excellent under baton of Emmanuel Joel-Hornak.

I would recommend these performances to anyone as providing a wonderful, old fashioned night at the opera … there are even two intermissions! The company should be congratulated on this artistic triumph.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Bell song by Emma Matthews from this production CLICK TO VIEW

The Merry Widow. Sydney Opera House

The Merry Widow. Sydney Opera House. Thursday 4th August 2011
New season announcement for 2012.

The national company has just opened a new co-production with Leeds’ Opera North. This Merry Widow is not a happy event in my view.

While the original from 1905 lacked an overture, the composer wrote one for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra 35 years later. Like the rather unedifying new translation, the local company chose to ignore history and do their own thing. The now traditional overture was replaced with a few bars of some ukulele/zither emptiness which might well have presaged another heavy night at the theatre. But it was not all doom and gloom as there were moments of magic and windows of dynamic vocalism.

Despite being one of their most popular artists for many years, the company in its wisdom banished tenor David Hobson from opera almost ten years ago (he was last heard in a G&S in 2005). He is now back playing a regal Prince Danilo to the delight of his many fans. Amelia Farrugia had all of the notes and most of the stage persona required for Hanna Glawari’s demanding role. She has a hard act to follow after Joan Sutherland, June Bronhill and Yvonne Kenny (in her prime) down the decades. As Rossignon, Henry Choo sang with style and grace, yet he, like everyone else, was amplified. John Bolton-Wood played a perfect ambassador while other supporting characters were also well cast. The chorus did its usual top job, as did the orchestra.

The company has replaced the large sub-title board above the stage with a smaller panel with orange coloured letters pushed closer together. And much of the dialogue was not projected at all … which made it almost impossible for some in the theatre to know what was going on. The decision to use exaggerated cockney and French accents also made it harder to understand.

The production seemed to be based on a dozen or more purple-backed, painted-on chandeliers which came up and down on vertical flats at appointed times. It also had 8 naked lady mannequins holding ball lights. Although it all worked reasonably well it lacked originality, nor did it give us anything particularly beautiful to admire.

The text was a quite different and high-brow literary translation. It pointedly used none of the original words, phrases or rhymes from the very familiar English version. Some of this seemed to be simply petulant or maybe there were issues of copyright or royalties. Some of the Widow pieces are so popular, most notably ‘Vilja, Oh Vilja’, that it seemed very odd indeed to insert new words. Would they do so with G&S to save money, I wonder?

Subscribers who enjoy grand opera may feel slighted that each time there are another ten performances of La Boheme (30 total) or Merry Widow (20 total) that the company COULD have mounted Simon Boccanegra, Clemenza di Tito, Il Trittico, Don Pasquale, La Gioconda, Yeoman of the Guard or one of dozens of other popular works in their place (using high quality and unamplified Australian and imported ingredients).

The new season for 2012 announced this week involves only a very small number of first or second-rung international stars. Susan Foster should be a good Turandot but she is not even doing half the season. Johannes Fritzsch returns to conduct Cheryl Barker in Salome. Aida might as well be called Amneris considering the roles. Yet we are to hear a competent house singer in this role while true stars both Australian and international are passed over for unknown reasons. In the summer season three popular Mozart operas run simultaneously … and “The Magic Flute” is not the Magic Flute at all, but a one-act cut-down version! But no discounts for diluted opera: good seats are between $215 and $272 even at subscription rates! Youth subscription tickets to Madam Butterfly are still a steep $194. I think this is the third run of Butterfly in four years! After relentless increases in recent years I note that some subscriptions are about 4% cheaper this year and only hope this encourages more to renew.

Poor Teddy Tahu Rhodes sings 34 performances of South Pacific. So yet again, we have a trained opera singer performing musical comedy by an ‘opera’ company which is nothing of the kind any more. It is much simpler when one can do night after night of the same work. I have no problem in principle with South Pacific, Mary Poppins, G&S or Merry Widow - they are all great works. Just that serious opera companies usually leave such works to others. They compete on a very different market than with their core duties of opera. The OA mission statement deals with opera and opera singers and mentions nothing about light opera, operetta or musical comedy (* see below).

In another bizarre twist according to the season brochure Cheryl Barker is billed to ‘sing’ Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt … but she will do so separate from the orchestra in another hall and the audio will be piped into the opera theatre. This, along with amplification of other works and “opera afloat” shows the complete lack of insight on the part of the company. What opera fans want to hear is singing. Pure beautiful, unamplified singing! One hopes that Ms Barker will be suitable for this very demanding role – and that we might actually hear her sing it.

It is humiliating to hear what the company management is quoted as saying about subscribers, singers of less-than-svelte stature, Wagner and ‘alternative’ opera. It is like a teenage fantasy rather than mature management. The Australia Council should review how its public funds are expended by this company.

Sadly this opera company is in its death throes as any accounting student could plainly see. Will the government/s bail it out when the time comes? I doubt it in the current financial climate. The Merry Widow and South Pacific are just desperate attempts to right a listing ship … yet more poor programming for the national ‘opera’ company and probably another step in its slow demise under current management. Why would an opera company try to compete with Mary Poppins? It is a great sadness to see an established, vibrant and innovative opera company attaining irrelevance by years of mismanagement. The board members and other smug decision makers should be called to account, fall on their swords, concede their errors and allow an administrator to try a rescue (like Fidelio!) before all that is left is a post-mortem without an audience.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

* Mission Statement. Opera Australia.

Web site accessed 22/2/09

To present opera of excellence that excites audiences and develops and sustains the art form in Australia

To this end, we will:

1. Interpret with integrity the indivisible musical and dramatic qualities of operatic works from four centuries including our own time and place;

2. Satisfy and extend the experience of the committed opera audience while actively encouraging and developing new audiences;

3. Operate year-round: mounting major seasons in Sydney and Melbourne,
and reaching a wider community through multimedia, regional tours and collaboration with State companies;

4. Strengthen our ensemble values of co-operative working, cumulative
learning and mutual respect between all areas and members of the Company;

5. Develop financial strength through long-term planning, prudent cost
control and maximising revenues from box-office, sponsors, donors, governments, tourism and other commercial activities;

6. Continue to build the confidence, trust and loyalty of the public,
governments and sponsors through efficient service and honest,
effective communication;

7. Attract, develop, challenge and retain people of the highest calibre
within an organisation that is effectively led, well informed and in which
their contribution is respected and celebrated;

8. Expect artists and staff to continue their professional growth throughout
their careers and to draw, as appropriate, on the accumulated knowledge within and available to the Company;

9. Continue the mutual benefit flowing from collaboration with international artists and companies;

10. Be rigorous in self-examination and open to informed, outside evaluation of both our successes and failures;

So that:

Australia's cultural landscape is enriched by a nationally and internationally acknowledged opera company;

Artists and staff collaborate in a unique working environment, which encourages them to give of their best;

Sponsors, governments and supporters receive a highly-valued artistic dividend and benefits of association; and,

The Company secures long-term and mutually profitable relations with key venues and multimedia.

24 July, 2011

A Boheme-led recovery?

La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House. Tuesday 12th July 2011

This was an enjoyable and ‘different’ La Boheme. The publicity told us that the action is moved to Germany but I could see nothing uniquely German except for some Biedermeier-looking furniture at one stage.

The student ‘garret’ is a huge hexagon of which four sides are displayed, rather like the inside of a gasometer. There are two high rows of tiny windows to the outside with ladders, planks and a gantry from which one gathers that Marcello is painting the Red Sea as per the first line of the opera. And by Act 4 indeed we have an enormous vista of the biblical scene – which some sources intriguingly call the ‘Sea of Reeds’ rather than the ‘Red Sea’. So now I realise how the Pharaoh was to be drowned – this is the opera’s second line. Some research showed that this stage set may represent some sort of travelling ‘Globe’ theatre called a spiegeltent (Dutch for ‘mirror tent’).

The Café Momus scene has a mid-act coup when four lateral flats rotate to reveal eight theatre boxes and we are indoors again in a cabaret venue. The same set could be used for the casino scene in Manon. The Act III set is also tasteful with the requisite city gates, falling snow and adjacent inn.

Mr Ji-Min Park is an excellent Rodolfo. He is young and good looking with fine acting skills. His voice is pleasing in quality and size with effortless and even movements up the scale. His musicality is tasteful and appears natural. The diction in Italian is fine but I noted that he pronounced cinque as sinque in the first act (a small point indeed).

Ms Kizart is an equally fine Mimi, finding all the necessary nuances for this tragic role, yet avoiding the melodrama it could so easily become.

An announcement was made by Mr Lyndon Terracini that Marcello would be sung by Mr Andrew Jones, a young artist with the company, due to a winter virus which is going around. He was superlative in this very substantial role. Despite having no aria he is the fourth lovers’ link which is so crucial to the tension and balance of the story line.

Taryn Fiebig stepped up to the role of Musetta and was also highly satisfying and “out there”. Likewise David Parkin as Colline and Shane Lawrencev as Schaunard … although it was tiresome that the latter was made to play the fop, dandy and campy part over and over in the opera, (rather like ‘Harold’ in Boys in the Band - but without the depth).

The orchestra was again conducted by Shao-Chia Lu from Taiwan … with flare and pace … they received a great reception in the resumption of Act III (there was only one intermission – a mistake in my view).

We are told that the company is in deep trouble with a 15% annual contraction of their subscriber base … only saved on occasion by individual box office successes (Madam Butterfly, My Fair Lady, Carmen, G&S, etc). This time there are thirty performances of La Boheme over nearly four months with three different casts. Can this be a Boheme-led recovery? I don’t think so. This company has had two second-rate productions of Boheme in recent years so most subscribers have seen the opera numerous times of late, like Madame Butterfly. One only hopes that there are lots of newcomers out there to discover the joys of opera through these current performances.

I am intrigued and dismayed at the press statements from the company’s artistic director. Within days of joining the company he stated that doing a Ring Cycle would be a great idea - but not in Sydney(!). Now they have opera on the water with a ‘pontoon’ Traviata … will it be Aida-on-ice next? While doing overseas performances and these other side shows, the company’s subscribers’ are charged high prices for relatively ordinary quality opera. Mr Terracini’s pointed comments about looking-the-part on stage in last week’s newspaper are banal as they are naïve. So Pavarotti would not have measured up! Some of the greatest draw-cards at the New York Met today are on the large side - others are old - but they all have something special in their throats!

So rather than addressing a serious problem with the company, the present management seems to have no insight and plays popular pieces to a nebulous public (cruise ships and newcomers) while ignoring their own support base of 50 years. About ten years ago they started deviating from a successful traditional formula which had served the company well for decades. And now it shows in the disappearance of their audiences as well as in the quality and variety of their work. One only hopes that it is not too late … but when seemingly three quarters of this year’s performances are Butterfly, Boheme, Merry Widow or Carmen we have a problem, Houston. And yet at the other end of the operatic spectrum we have Capriccio, Partenope, Of Mice and Men and The Love of the Nightingale, none of which forms the meat of an operatic sandwich. Indeed, Macbeth is the only single opera I was really looking forward to this year (I concede narrow tastes). But one single opera?? How times have changed!

22 April, 2011

Otello by Verdi at Carnegie Hall Friday 15th April 2011

Otello by Verdi at Carnegie Hall Friday 15th April 2011.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor: Riccardo Muti

The two best operas we heard during the month were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Comte Ory is a Rossini romp full of froth and bubble where Otello is as serious as it gets. We were indeed privileged to hear Riccardo Muti perform Otello at Carnegie Hall with his orchestra and chorus from Chicago and a group of highly talented principal singers. It was a marvellous and special performance, complimented by the near perfect acoustics of Carnegie Hall (c. 1891, seating 2800). These performances marked Muti’s return to the podium after 2 months following cardiac arrhythmia causing a collapse and serious facial injuries. After surgeries and a pacemaker he again looks his youthful and radiant self, bounding with extraordinary physical and musical energy.

The opera was stunning in every way. It was announced that Mr Aleksandrs Antonenko was under treatment for a stomach ailment and craved our indulgence. His performance as the moor was peerless. He has a big, beautiful tenor voice with the heft, depth and colour needed for this supreme operatic role. His Desdemona was played by Krassimira Stoyanova who sang the heart out of the role, again with style, power and tasteful intonation. Carlo Guelfi was a menacing Iago, starting out weakly and with a wide wobble but, like a locomotive he reigned in his powerful instrument to this long and challenging role. Unlike some other creditable singers we have heard in this role, Guelfi had all the high notes for the drinking song - and more besides. In the last note of his dramatic ‘credo’ he could not be heard due to the orchestra, something I found surprising with a conductor who is normally so sympathetic to singers.

Other roles were also well chosen with Cassio being played by a good looking young Argentinean tenor Juan Francisco Gatell who sang extremely well, despite being particularly short and having a terrible ‘mod-mess’ hair style. Barbara Di Castri played Amelia, Eric Owens played Lodovico and Michael Spyres, Roderigo. Each was admirable.

As ever in New York the audience was almost as interesting as the show. In the two rows in front of me were Bryn Terfel, Mrs Jonas Kauffman and Sarah Billinghurst of the Metropolitan Opera. The previous Otello I heard in this hall was the ill-fated return of Carlo Bergonzi in 2000. The ‘three tenors’ and many other famous people attended. Many left before the second half after the fabled tenor pulled out sick (and after giving one of the worst performances of his illustrious career – and following a reportedly magnificent dress rehearsal just the day before).

The Chicago orchestra provided an enormous chorus of perhaps 200 adults and 50 children who filled the hall with wonderful vocalisation. Apparently they all flew in for the occasion having done two performances in their home town. It demonstrates that a concert performance can be as exciting as the staged work (or even more so) and it would be almost impossible to imagine a stage which could fit this number of singers altogether in costume.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

18 April, 2011

Comte Ory. Rossini. Met Opera (cinema then theater).

Comte Ory. Rossini. Met Opera. Sat 9th (cinema), Thurs 14th (theatre) April 2011

For the third time now I have been extremely privileged to see an opera in the theatre AFTER having first seen a telecast of the same production. Prior to Comte Ory I had seen Rheingold and Tosca on the screen followed by visits to the ‘real thing’.

My notes on the operas in New York are now almost superfluous since anyone with a computer can listen in on Sirius broadcasts for almost any Met performance (and free public radio on Saturdays during the season). Suffice it to say that both live and electronic, Florez is incomparable, Damrau and DiDonato are magnificent and the comic production is a great irreligious romp, raunchy and with a great comeuppance at the end. It might be subtitled ‘Nuns on the Run’.

As readers would know, once every few weeks there is also a video transmission to participating cinemas across the world (43 countries, Egypt is the latest, we were told). These are Saturday matinees streamed in ‘high definition’ direct in the Americas as well as to Europe, where it is Saturday evening with the time zone. Due to the ungainly time difference, they are streamed to Australia and the Far East a week or two later at a more suitable hour. This necessarily loses that immediacy and ‘danger’ factor intrinsic to direct ‘live’ transmissions.

Only those in or near New York City have the choice for Met productions. The rest of the opera world may attend a cinema telecast or listen to a radio or CD/DVD recording. Hence I felt very lucky to be able to attend numerous live performances during a stay of almost four weeks in New York (see below for the operas I attended, with comments on: ).

The most obvious difference is the immediacy of non-amplified voices, live in the theatre. Opera is about voice, after all. And opera singers of all things need to have a voice which can be heard from the back of a large theatre … as well as the rest. See my blog notes on stunt people being used and how much more obvious it is in the theatre: see Tosca and Rheingold notes also comparing live with HD viewing. There were also ‘stunt’ people in Comte Ory in the form of three men dressed as nuns who did some crazy synchronised steps including one calamitous spill on stage. I don’t believe that the principals were replaced as they were in Rheingold and Tosca on numerous occasions.

I was invited by a donor colleague to a lavish patron session at the Met on the afternoon of the HD telecast of their new production of Comte Ory on Saturday 9th April. Rather than just a panel introduction (which happened in March before the season started) it was in fact a fully catered brunch with all the bells and whistles. Bagel, cream cheese and lox, quiche Lorraine and salad served with champagne, petit fours, tea and coffee an hour prior to the start of the opera. During the vittels we heard an insightful speech by Sarah Billinghurst who is the Met Artistic Director (and a Kiwi). She spoke about their approach to repertoire generally and in particular, she said that they aimed to mount one new work each year … meaning an established opera which had never been done at the Met. This year was Comte Ory. I wondered if Anna Bolena was the new one for next year.

We were also given a few snippets about the Met’s policy on folio versions and translations in response to a rather critical piece in the New York Times on the subject that day (‘Timing is everything!’). The company had decided against the ‘new’ translation simply because it was not available when they programmed the opera three to four years ago. Changing text or music in such circumstances has contract and artistic implications and had to be rejected. Ms Billinghurst said that this did not mean that the company would not consider using the new translation in the future ‘by all means’. The cost of using a modern copyrighted versions of works is also a consideration when, as she reminded the room filled with generous donors (myself excluded but including my generous hostess) that the Met’s box office receipts only cover half of the budget so all expenditure has to be closely vetted. The ‘classics’, of course, come free of patent or royalties.

Ms Billinghurst then discussed the ‘good news’ that Mr Florez had agreed to sing at successive seasons at the Met in the foreseeable future. She emphasised that after a brief foray with the Duke from Rigoletto in South America, Mr Florez had determined to stay within his current fach by singing the lighter bel canto roles which he had started eight seasons ago with Barber of Seville (a season I heard him do Almaviva on two occasions - it was extraordinary). Mr Florez had also decided against singing in I Puritani.

Our speaker told us that the Comte Ory was one of Rossini’s last operas. The already very famous composer lived in London for a time but was lured back to Paris with a lucrative contract. He composed Voyage to Reims for the coronation of Charles X but withdrew the work in order to recycle six numbers for Comte Ory. His final opera, just after this, was William Tell, written when he was 38 years old after which he retired and wrote little else but charming songs.

Comte Ory will never be one of the ABC of popular operas, nor does it contain any classic concert items. However it is crammed full of wonderful melody and may contain Rossini’s “busiest” music. The act I finale is brilliant. It has some orchestration reminiscent of the Fledermaus overture as well as hints of Semiramide and Fille du Regiment.

We were told that Joyce DeDonato has been offered the role, despite it having no discrete aria. The role had huge vocal and dramatic challenges which suited her talents … and she had worked with the other principal artists already with great success. Ms Damrau likewise seemed ideally suited to the colossal coloratura and hilarious comedy situations. The opera has a night time bedroom scene in which there are three people in a bed but only two of them know they are not a couple. For once Mr Florez is on the butt of the joke and he also “loses the girl” and Ms Billinghurst told us that Ms DeDonato was the one who gets away with the girl - ‘two girls go off together’ she said mischievously. She then gave a rap for Maestro Benini who is very much at home in this sort of repertoire.

The production is original and well executed as a play within a play in an 18th century proscenium theatre. The telecast is introduced by Renee Fleming and I would recommend it to anyone.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Queen of Spades
Romeo and Juliette
Comte Ory
Otello (Carnegie Hall, Chicago Orchestra with Muti)

New York Blog:

11 April, 2011

Wozzek inter alia.

Dear Friends,

The Metropolitan Opera has restaged Berg's Wozzek. Although being one of the great works and a star case it is not my cup of tea being intellectual and dissonant. A mischievous friend wrote to say that I should know that half-way through it reverses and runs backwards so that it ends at the beginning.

This was also the Met debut of Australian tenor Stuart Skelton (Drum Major) along with Gerhard Seigel (Captain), Alan Held (title), Maltraud Meier (Marie) conducted by an extremely frail looking James Levine. The orchestration is phenomenal, complex and loud, if not always exactly beautiful. The last two scenes are particularly novel. The opera received a huge ovation in the house and especially the beloved maestro.

I will have been fortunate to hear Tosca, Romeo and Juliette, Queen of Spades, Rheingold, Otello and Comte Ory (see my notes on the opera blog). Some names include Domingo (conducting), Stephanie Blythe, Violeta Urmana, Salvatore Licitra, James Morris, Hei-Kyung Hong, Piotr Beczala, Vladimir Galouzine, Peter Mattei, Juan Diego Florez, Joyce deDonato, Diana Damrau, Dolora Zajick, James Levine and Riccardo Muti. Tickets for all operas were all easy to obtain over the internet, most costing less than $100 for excellent positions in the house. It makes the quality and price of opera in Sydney seem to be very poor options.

More notes on Comte Ory and Otello next week.

06 April, 2011

Tosca. Monday 4th April 2011. Metropolitan Opera.

Tosca. Puccini. Monday 4th April 2011. Metropolitan Opera.

Dear Colleagues,

I enjoyed this production which is updated to the 1920s but still seems to ‘work’ in most every respect.

Violetta Urmana is now clearly a soprano, having done some ‘in between’ roles like Santuzza and Kundry. She did a most creditable Princess Eboli a few years back with Rolando Villazon in Amsterdam (available on DVD). On this occasion she sang Tosca, a dramatic soprano role. She was magnificent in this rather up-dated and somewhat controversial production. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’ was splendid. Rather than singing, she spoke her lines after killing Scarpia: “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma”.

Salvatore Licitra did a grand Cavaradossi, letting loose on all the top notes as well as putting in all the most delicate shadings to his legato singing.

James Morris is one of the few survivors of the ‘golden age’ and yet he can still pull it out of the bag for Scarpia. I was concerned as he had some ugly exposed notes early on with a wide wobbly beat, yet he reined it in and sang large and loud, as becomes the evil Rome Chief of Police.

Angelotti was played by Richard Bernstein who was also excellent. At the start, after a spotlight flashes around the darkened interior of the church annex, his appearance was from a high portcullis whence he descended by a thick rope to the stage floor only to walk through a side chapel and reappear to start the action of the opera. I had it pointed out to me that in fact it was clearly a ‘double’ who shinnied down that rope. This was revealed by a visiting Australian soprano we happened to meet at intermission (New York is teeming with Aussies at present). We were told that singers just hate doing that sort of thing. She and her partner were also mightily impressed with the Met goings on and were only disappointed to have missed Rheingold, saying ‘you had to kill someone’ to get a ticket (I know I was lucky, having booked some months ago). I should point out that Angelotti somehow managed to pull his rope free from the ground, a boy-scout trick I was never taught.

I was also concerned about the soprano’s final leap which did not come off as planned. From my seat I was able to see the soprano still standing on the stairs as a mannequin or stunt person leapt out into thin air (and a safety net) as the lights blacked out at the end of the drama. I think that maybe Luc Bondy wanted the mannequin thrown off the high turret into the oblivion but the management may have thought that their audience were not ready for that. Certainly many would have been deeply shocked and some might have thought to call the ambulance. Also, here in New York there are still too many memories of 9/11. I was also surprised that there were no stars for ‘E lucevan le stelle’, at least not from where I was sitting.

Despite these small production criticisms, another staggeringly exciting night at the Met.

Comments by Andrew Byrne .. (pinching myself to a bruise).

Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera

Wed 30th March 2011. See also: Andrew’s review of HD telecast

This performance was an artistic and vocal success - yet somehow there was still something missing. The company has had teething problems with their novel 24-plank stage “machine” … and for this performance there was a 25 minute delay. An announcement was made at ten past the hour although no explanation was given. This is particularly awkward for a continuous work of just over 2½ hours. It does not augur well for the Die Walkure opening in a few short weeks based on the same concept and using the same ‘machine’. Little wonder that the dress rehearsal has been closed to the public.

I had seen the opera in the cinema in high definition back in December but this was very different, especially as I was sitting slightly to the side (and quite close). The main difference was that one noticed the intensity of the voices in the theater where there is no amplification, enhancement, balancing, etc. None of the voices needed the slightest enhancement and from where I sat in row J we were engulfed in a vast vocalism which is rare indeed. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka has a voice which may compete with the legendary Clara Butt who allegedly could be heard in France when singing at Dover. At times it was hard to believe that Ms Blythe was not amplified, yet she never sounds forced or harsh in the slightest. And Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia was not far behind in the decibels department. Bryn Terfel did not tire in his portrayal of Wotan yet neither did he seem to impart the contrasting elements of resolve and confusion of this complex character in the theater.

There were two cast changes from the version broadcast to cinemas around the world last year. Alberich was played by Richard Paul Fink on this occasion rather than Eric Owens (they were both outstanding) and Loge by Dutch singer Arnold Bezuyen rather than Richard Croft (equally impressive performances). Mr Levine was replaced by Fabio Luisi owing to ill health. Otherwise the cast remained the same with Dwayne Croft playing Donner, Gerhard Seigel as Mime, Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Adam Diegel as Froh (a new and substantial tenor talent to watch) and Patricia Bardon as Erda. None let the side down, despite some criticisms of the original performances.

The drama unfolded with one splendid visual vista after another, starting with the blue Rhine River at dawn and its suspended (literally) Rhine Maidens singing as they approached the sandy banks from which Alberich approached with his unwanted advances. The opening scene was more subtle and effective in the cinema since it was seen ‘head on’ by everyone with a gently increasing wave motion. The clunking Nibelheim scene was cleverly done but most impressive perhaps was the denouement which saw the central planks rotate to create a steep multicoloured bridge which each character (or their double) mounted as it levelled out, leaving only Loge on stage, being a mere demi-god, while the angled wall turned from fine grained black and white marble tones to stars in the last seconds of the opera as the curtain was lowered. There was much beauty in this avant-garde production, despite its mechanical limitations.

Two things made me realise for the first time that some of the action (and perhaps much more) was done by stand-in actors. I was baffled at the rapidity with which Wotan and Loge were able to exit stage left after the second scene to then reappear high above on the brilliantly synthesised lateral staircase across which they ‘langloffed’ towards Nibelheim. The use of stuntmen and women was also obvious using trapeze wires in the final scene. This was most evident for Ms Blythe whose imposing physical frame was not consistent with the similarly dressed ‘double’ joining the party of gods mounting the (initially) near vertical rainbow bridge as they marched slowly first up and then across towards Valhalla.

It may seem stupid, but after ‘seeing and believing’ in the cinema, I somehow felt cheated by this. We are led to believe that the named characters perform the stated roles and yet now it appears otherwise (same in the current Met Tosca in two instances at least). No names of stunt subs were given in the program from what I could see. Naturally, it made me wonder just how many such actions were performed by others taking non-singing roles. “Would Wagner have approved”? … and while complete speculation, this is the question I always ask myself about modern productions. After all, Wagner gave quite detailed instructions on what he wanted of his performers in the drama. And yet he also wanted his operas to be accessible to the wider public. Comparison with the Otto Schenk production would be odious and unnecessary.

In a discussion after the opera with some like minded friends we decided that if the staging does not distract either performers or audience from the drama then it is probably fine. I am still equivocal on that and may have to see the opera again to decide. Because I had no idea that there were doubles when watching in the cinema it could not have been distracting by definition - indeed I recommended it ‘to anyone’ at the time.

The 40 tonne machine with 24 rotating ‘gang planks’ was described by Mr LePage on the radio broadcast. These angled, fangled flaps can form a myriad of varied surfaces. By containing surface LED-like illumination they can become any colour, texture or shimmering effect. Bubbles going up, river stones rolling down … marble effects, stars on black … even a remarkable flashing lightning effect when struck by Donner in the last minutes of the opera … nothing is too difficult for the ‘machine’!

A narrow trench in front of the palisaded planks served for many entrances and exits including Alberich’s arrival early on as well as Erda’s appearance near the end. It may have served for quick swaps for stunt people too as they bobbed up and down.

The costumes deserve comment. Despite an ultramodern setting, the characters’ dress was from mythic history, breast-plates, leather belts, fur sleeves, scarves, capes and cuff laces. The two giants were particularly effective with mock-steroid deltoid and chest bulges, creating a singular impression. They were almost twin like in other respects as well. There were no horns, helmets or other head gear, probably because of the gravity defying necessities of the action (Tarnhelm notwithstanding).

The orchestra was exemplary, taking the piece at a measured pace and never dominating the vocal side. Robert Lepage and his team have indeed succeeded in transforming this epic work into a new and enjoyable production for their Manhattan audience and it is a bonus that we can all now join the Rhine journey in cinemas across the world. Die Walkure opens on Good Friday and the full ring in a year’s time.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

05 April, 2011

“To double or not to double, that is the stuntman question.”

“To double or not to double, that is the stuntman question.”

A most interesting comparison. Rheingold in the theater (US spelling) was quite a different experience despite most of the same cast, same production, etc. Somehow I had expected more but got less. Most telling was that it was obvious live that there were stunt actors doing numerous feats we assumed (or at least I had assumed) were being done by the singers. The whole essence of opera, making it different from leider is that the singers dress up and act through a dramatic role as well as ‘bellow’ their challenging vocal parts.

Opera singers have always been called on to do the occasional stage ‘feat’ … like ride a horse, jump off a balcony, do a limp fall, sing in a harness about the stage, etc. I have even seen one modern tenor juggle on stage and do a hand stand (Roberto Alagna in Elixir of Love). But it necessarily interrupts the drama when scenes contain diversions where, during non-singing sections, the character disappears briefly and apparently reappears … sliding down a rope (Tosca), mounting a bridge or even being thrown across the stage (Tosca again) or doing other feats, only to reappear elsewhere on the stage before they start singing again.

Of course if this is all done cleverly and totally imperceptibly (as it was for me in the cinema) it can hardly matter. But when it is bleeding obvious (as must happen when it is slightly imperfect, the more so for those up close) then it is a distraction which necessarily takes ones mind and ear off the musical drama and back to the nuts and bolts of the staging details as happens at the circus and which is the very opposite, I believe, of what composers would have wanted for their works.

I am coming to some conclusions about telecasting operas … and there must be compromises made I know and funds from telecast will exceed the individual box office eventually I imagine. But this is a tectonic shift for the company and for opera generally where artistic decisions will now be based on the broadcast at the expense of those in the theatre itself … something I never thought would happen.

Link to Met site:
Andrew’s opera blog:

04 April, 2011

Met Talks: Die Walkure. Friday April 1 2011

Met Talks: Die Walkure. Friday April 1 2011

An introduction to the new Die Walkure on Friday afternoon was supplemented by an interview with Mr Lepage before the Rheingold broadcast the following day. Because of other commitments (and the Met Guild changing the time from 5pm to 6pm at short notice) I had to leave the Friday evening session early. We were sitting in the huge half-empty ‘orchestra’ stalls of the Met auditorium listening to the Ring director, general manager Peter Gelb and 4 cast members who sat at a table with microphones and glasses of water on a platform raised above the orchestra pit with the music stands all moved to the sides. They did not sing … no ‘freebies!’

Deborah Voigt is to sing Brunnhilde, Jonas Kaufmann Siegmund, Eva-Maria Westbroek Sieglinde and Stephanie Blythe Fricka. We had an introduction from Mr Gelb about the genesis of this Ring series, the 45 ton “machine” which was ‘asleep’ a few yards away on stage left awaiting Saturday’s Rheingold broadcast performance (also the last for the current season).

The cast, he told us, had been rehearsing Walkure already on “level C”, three floors below the current stage and the first formal stage rehearsal would commence this Sunday. Mr Gelb made a few pertinent but slightly nervous jokes about the last minute problems with the set and production but did not allude to the half hour delay to this week’s performance on Wednesday. “The rainbow bridge worked THIS TIME!” He also made a quip about the new steel girders needed to take the weight!

We were told that the whole thing had been an enormous undertaking after 21 years since the Met last mounted a new Ring series. Ms Blythe spoke first, saying that she found the role of Fricka very rewarding and that she said she constantly had to defend the Goddess of fidelity who was ‘always right’ … “after all, marriage between a brother and sister is just not right, is it?” And she went on to remind us that her character had to look on as her wandering husband made one disastrous decision after another, knowing there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. She spoke with a jolly joy and fluency as well as a slight wickedness and obviously could have spoken for the whole hour herself. She did not need the microphone given to her and Mr Gelb had reminded us that these singers had to do all of these roles unaided by amplification in this enormous theater.

Next Deborah Voigt spoke about the demands of the iconic role of the favourite Walkirie, Brunnhilde. ‘Daunting’, ‘challenging’ and other such terms were used. She declined a question about what she found most difficult, saying that everyone would look out for it if she let on. She had been asked by another opera house to do this role several years ago but she had declined for two reasons. She felt that she was not quite ready and that once she had done it, it would become her major career choices. She also wanted to do the role of Minnie in Fanciulla del West before tackling the even bigger Ring roles. We then saw a brief video of main scenes and stage highlights from the current Rheingold to an orchestral medley.

Robert Lepage spoke about the major differences between the ‘prologue’ of Rheingold which is mainly superhuman events with gods, demigods, thunder and lightning to the very human stories starting in Die Walkure, namely a love affair in a little house in the woods, albeit a very strange affair in a particularly strange house. He had visited Iceland and said that with some of the Norse myths originating there it was telling for his retelling of the story since there were glaciers, volcanos and mountain ranges as tectonic plates met, like some elements in the first opera. Whether he manages to focus this worldly dimension down to the intimate scenes between the twin lovers, Wotan and his daughter, etc in Walkure we will have to wait another few weeks (it opens on Good Friday).

I missed the comments by Kaufman and Westerbroek but gather that they described their approaches to learning the respective roles (the tenor was apparently reluctant to describe how long it took him to learn his part). I was told that at the end of the talk at 7pm there were patrons already waiting for the evening performance of Cappricio, the elegant set of which we had seen briefly. The evening’s speakers had entered by way of the fire curtain being lifted. Apparently there was no time for questions and answers which was a shame. I had one of my own about stunt-persons involved in the production.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

29 March, 2011

Queen of Spades at the Met. March 27 matinee

Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades also had its final season outing on my first Saturday in the city so the matinee saw Conductor Andris Nelsons along with Vladimir Galouzine, Peter Mattei, Karita Mattila, Dolora Zajick, Paul Plishka … causing something of Stendahl shock for opera-staved visitors. I took some time to come down to earth after the substantial Saturday pleasure.

Mr Galouzine sang with his usual forthright style but always with a reserve suitable to the nature of the character. Ms Mattila gave a fine interpretation, again with a slight reticence to the part.

Yeletesky’s Act II aria ‘Ya vas lyublyu’ received a deservedly rapturous ovation as Peter Mattei showed just how it is done. It was the high point of the performance for me, not that there was anything less than engaging in this often neglected Russian masterpiece. [Pique Dame aria on YouTube with Vladimir Chernov.]

The story revolves around a mere soldier falling for a highly place lady and assuming that finding fortune is the only way to facilitate the union. It involves alcohol, gambling and cheating, not a good trio for a happy marriage and fate has it that his world finally collapses in the last act when the winning formula of three, seven and Ace fails him on his third supposedly triumphant wager.

The entire production was set in a large shiny white picture frame architrave. From large ballroom scenes to lonely bedroom all was sympathetic to the book. An old video of this opera from the Met with Domingo has been shown on Australian television.

Brief and inadequate comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Romeo and Juliette at the Met. March 27 2011

Romeo and Juliette. Gounod. Sat 27th March 2011 at the Met.

An announcement craved our understanding for Mr Beczala who had a cold. As Romeo, one of the most difficult roles in opera, Mr Beczala was magnificent and the performance went ahead without a hitch. He looked the part and acted brilliantly in this very avant-garde ‘zodiac’ production. In a prologue and 5 acts he has to sing numerous arias and four love duets including much high tessitura and many exposed high notes. Beczala used style, control and beauty to accomplish his success.

No less impressive was his Juliette Hei-Kyung Hong who returns to the Met undiminished. She is able to do all the callisthenics required of the director … including a limp fall, sex scene on a small bed suspended high above the stage and more. Her initial ‘Waltz song’ was a tour-de-force indeed … but rather than simple joyous soliloquy she sang it to a mute but attentive Romeo, the as yet unknown object of her projected hapless happiness. The ‘party piece’ ended with a mutual limp fall, one of the few production details of questionable taste to my view, approaching slapstick.

Other parts were played by James Morris (cleric), Dwayne Croft (Capulet), Wendy White (Gertrude), Lucas Meachem (Mercutio), each more than competent Met artists. Placido Domingo conducted the Met orchestra to great and well deserved acclaim.

Each side of the stage was an Italian street scenes of arches, facades, architraves, etc in wood in-lay colours to match the flooring which was made of checkerboard squares of light and dark polished timber. The floor was marked out in both pictorial and nominal signs of the Zodiac in French. It also had a unique ‘revolve’ which was raked so as to initially be flat with the stage. On turning 180 degrees the large central circle became a metre above the stage at the front and a metre below it at the rear. This was used to great effect throughout the opera, but never to excess as so often happens when directors are given such stage devices.

Romeo and Juliette is replete with astronomical references - “Star-crossed lovers” is just the best known while a search turned up over a dozen including one reference to the phases of the moon. These astronomical/astrological aspects of the production made for an exceptional mise-en-scene for amateur star-gazers like me. Each tableau had three giant full circles, one at the rear, one of the floor and another, I presume, although I could only see the solar system “mobile”, high above the stage. The rear stage circular aperture had circumferential gradations plus a golden ball on a tangent, presumably representing a planet.

With much of the opera’s action taking place at night, the rear circle reflected the sky in all its guises starting with the milky way, followed by a spiral galaxy. Rather than the usual random star patterns one sees in Tosca and other operas, this production’s backdrop becomes a telescopic window onto the heavens. There was even gradual movement of the sky as anyone who has struggled with a toy telescope would know. Next we were presented with two cloudy intruders on the black which may have represented the Magellanic clouds (first seen by Magellan being near the Southern Cross and thus never visible from the northern hemisphere - but we put that down to artistic licence). These were followed by magnificent images of deep sky objects, planetary nebulae and other Messier objects, images of which may have even been from the Hubble telescope. In the next scene we saw an enormous full moon enlargement, replete with the Copernicus impact crater, its radiating lines, as well as a near-complete circular ‘sea’, possibly Mare Crisium.

At the start of Act III the stage had an electrified scrim in front of the action. This revealed the entire panoply of stars around the constellation Orion, the triplet stars of hunter’s belt (called ‘the saucepan’ in the southern hemisphere) with the night sky’s brightest star, Sirius in Canis Major, the dog constellation. Also clearly depicted were Gemini’s twin stars [sic], Hyades in Taurus (pink Aldebaran depicted correctly) and even (with the eye of faith) Pleiades (the “seven sisters”) beyond it. During the dual (NOT duel!) killings the rear projection became a black-centred eclipse which seemed appropriate. By the very last scene the rear circle contained an Escher-esque series of ‘stairways to nowhere’, paralleling a REAL giant paired stairway down which Romeo made his agonal entrance.

By chance and through unusually clear Manhattan skies I had noted Orion high above the Met as I crossed 65th Street (upside down from my usual point of view).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

13 March, 2011

Partenope Act I. Then I lost patience.

Partenope – Saturday 12th March 2011 Sydney Opera House.

George Frederick wrote this work knowing that it had a bizarre and unfathomable story line with many comic one-liners included. However, Handel also knew that since it was done in Italian and most of the London patrons were already inebriated before the show, the story would not matter as long as the orchestra strummed its bits and the castrato did the requisite numbers.

I have to confess that your correspondent has let you down on this occasion, being unable and unwilling to sit through more than the first act of this long and tedious show.

To me, the audience was more interesting than the opera … containing as guest of honour one of the great singers of the age, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli who was seated next to the artistic director Lyndon Terracini while Governor Marie Bashir sat with Adrian Collette. Further along the row was Leo Schofield. Aubrey Murphy was in the audience rather than playing his fiddle. Bronwyn Bishop is an obligatory fixture at opera openings. Robert Gay the opera savant was there with lots of other hopefuls.

There were over a hundred good seats unsold and there were also numerous opera company members, some VERY casually dressed in what must have been complimentary seats (nobody I know in the company could afford $300 for such seats). Empty seats on a Saturday opening night are not a good sign for a company intent on doing Wagner’s Ring operas (and in a single year by all reports!).

The opening set was splendid, being a surrealist curving white stairway leading to a full-width mezzanine which strangely was not used in the action of act one. Much of the drama in fact took place on the lower few stairs, stage left. This was almost in the wings as if it were designed for a larger theatre. And it was! This was a co-production with the English National Opera whose enormous stage it was designed for (see their set pictured below). It is not called the “Coliseum” for nothing: its stage is 17m wide versus 11-14m in Sydney.

The opera company has again broken with tradition by casting Kanan Breen in the part of Emilio. While Breen is a capable comprimario singer he struggles with Handel’s florid vocal lines and has trouble rising to the dramatic heights needed for a ferocious military adversary of the queen of Naples. That he was given a childish cellophane and elastic mask and a flash camera on stage does not deserve further comment.

Emma Matthews sang and acted flawlessly yet she was unsupported by her numerous suitors. Christopher Field as the obligatory Handel counter-tenor did not produce a beautiful sound: his feeble and cloying character is supposed to be dreary … so was his singing. Catherine Carby sang more than competently in her major aria in Act one … the act lasted an hour and had no particular musical or dramatic high points. Richard Alexander always sings well but it was asking too much for him to be the only true male operatic voice of the night. An opera without a baritone? Really? And no operatic tenor. And no chorus. And no ‘hit tune’. Handel did make it difficult and the only means to success would have been superlative showcase singing (it was not to be).

The conductor Christian Curnyn seemed to know what he was doing yet he had a strange habit of looking around to the left and into the auditorium as if there were some additional instruments or singers in the galleries. I spoke to two good friends the following day to learn that much of the audience left before the end. Poor Mr Breen was required to sing some enormously complex aria in Act 3 lying on his back with his legs in the air while the rest of the crew also struggled with the difficulties Handel’s vocal lines. Even some of the guests of honour departed early, or so I was told. What an embarrassment for a company which used to boast world-class opera! A DVD of the old Sydney Alcina has surfaced recently showing just one of these high points in stark contrast to the mish-mash presented today.

I was vexed to have missed Mahler’s seventh and Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in the next hall. There was nothing to entice me back for Acts 2 or 3 of the opera and I went to my favourite Thai in Macleay Street for their excellent prawns and ‘spicy drunken noodles with beef’. As an added bonus at the restaurant I ran into some friends who commiserated. Host Kham of Arun Thai brought us a first rate Bordeaux white wine which was, however, just too flinty for me … yet the others thought it was very fine drinking. Dessert of home-made coconut ice cream and rock melon with fresh mint was delicious. All highly recommended and a cure for a rotten night at the opera.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Arun Thai Ph: 9326 9135 Address: 28 Macleay St, Potts Point, 2011 (opp Ikon Building). Worth a visit.

08 February, 2011

Barber of Seville at Sydney Opera House

The Barber of Seville - Sydney Opera House Fri 4th February 2011

Dear Readers,

This was another exciting and exhilarating opening night at the opera.

Velvet-voiced mezzo-soprano Domenica Matthews rose to the occasion to be as good as any Rosina I have heard. Her customised version of ‘Una voce poco fa’ was perfectly suited to her very considerable vocal range and agility. Her dramatic side also showed great craft skills of comedy and farce.

Henry Choo excelled himself as Count Almaviva, singing a creditable first act aria/chorus and ending with the optional high note (a top C, I think), sustained, strong and exciting, causing an instant ovation. Mr Choo has developed his talents over the years to a very great degree and is a credit to himself and the company.

Newly ‘discovered’ Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro is certainly an impressive young opera singer with a handsome, large and ‘natural’ baritone voice, dramatic flair and presence. He did not outshine the locals but may have raised the standard by his much promised involvement. Like the other characters, Caoduro was given gags aplenty in this hilarious production. It was nice to see the company responding to popular demand and good taste by returning to the brilliant Moshinsky/Yeargan production set in an Edwardian doctor’s surgery/residence. There was full-length leadlight, electric door bell, floral wall paper, illuminated cocktail cabinet, 78 rpm records, upright piano and even a Charleston dance scene.

Warwick Fyfe sang a most credible Bartolo, managing the almost unsingable patter piece berating his ward’s misbehaviour. The company’s regular basso Jud Arthur has done what might be his best role to date as Don Basilio the music master and wayward cleric. His ‘La calunnia’ was a sustained vocal progression accompanied by stage effects, hissing, thunder, lightning, etc which all set off the sinister plan of slander which was described so well by Shakespeare*.

Even with this cast of substantial opera stars possibly the most memorable character was the white-coated surgical dresser Ambroglio played by Christopher Hillier. His black sunken eyes, morbid gait and dead-pan expression made the lady sitting beside me break-up into laughter several times.

Even the relatively small part of Berta played by Teresa La Rocca was marvellous, giving us a drunken maid’s vocal escapade ending on a stratospheric high note!! With all this high-class opera on show it would seem churlish to comment on the absence of ‘Cessa di piu non resistere’ - an optional extra which is hardly ever performed (see my review of Lawrence Brownlee at the Met last March - link to 2010 reviews).

The orchestra under Maestro Antony Walker was supplemented with keyboards in the pit. Beginning with a masterful rendition of the popular overture, the playing was superlative with this opera’s tuneful cadences, often on woodwinds moving from bassoon through the range to piccolos in rapid succession and back again. All in all a highly enjoyable night at the opera. A friend commented that the most attractive feature of the evening was the vivacity on stage, both vocal and dramatic. He felt that with such rich vocalising coming across the footlights encouraged the audience to engage with the characters and plot, in turn adding further to the energy on stage. Not a bad summation to my mind.

There were many dignitaries present. I was told that the King of Tonga was attending. Much loved and esteemed Governor Marie Bashir led the official party. Nearly all of the expensive seats were sold out which is gratifying (there had been gridlock and many arrived late). For those worried about ticket prices there are still some reasonable seats on the sides with restricted views for between $44 and $67. The rear 4 seats in loges Y and B are highly recommended by this opera goer.

Written by Andrew Byrne ..

* On slander or defamation: “Good name in man and woman is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.”

Shakespeare’s Othello, Act 3, Scene 3

18 January, 2011

Brilliant Carmen opening at the Sydney Opera House

Carmen. Sydney Opera House. Saturday 15th January 2011

The opera company has pulled it out of the bag again with a highly satisfactory reprise of Carmen in the production by Francesca Zambello. Not one but four international artists were engaged, headed by Israeli mezzo Rinat Sharham who sang a most creditable gypsy. Tenor Richard Troxell was Pinkerton in the famous 1995 movie and also makes a very fine Don José. Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the Toreador to a tee. The other minor roles were all up to scratch, and even Lillas Pastia was well cast, running as he/she does the tavern of Act II on the outskirts of Seville. Nicole Car as Micaela was the only local in a leading role and she was excellent, being, I was told, amongst the youngest on the stage at 24.

Maestro Guillaume Tourniaire bounced, danced, bobbed and leapt on the podium, arms swinging up to two metres at times, two centimetres at others. I cannot imagine that such animation could possibly induce the orchestra members to respond any more sympathetically. Indeed, the exhausting routine could have been a distraction. The overture was the fastest I have ever heard - at least initially - and I have heard some fast Carmen overtures in my time. Yet he took some passages more tenderly and seemed sympathetic to the piece overall despite the calisthenics.

Orchestra and chorus were up to their usual high standard and the hall was packed out.

This original production was given in 2008 with Richard Hickox conducting and his wife doing the title role. However, there were animals which for some reason were all left out of this current production. The first scene had a mule and chickens on stage while Escamillo arrived on horseback. A most memorable moment was that beautiful black horse taking a ‘bow’ at the end.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

14 January, 2011

Madama Butterfly. Sydney Opera House. Friday 7th January

Madama Butterfly. Sydney Opera House. 7.30pm Friday 7th January 2011

Dear Readers,

This was an auspicious opening night repeating the same successful gala two years ago. An even higher standard was achieved with the welcomed return of American soprano Patricia Racette who we heard in Faust ten years ago. She sang and acted the part of Cio-cio-san superlatively, providing some her own interpretations. On two occasions to my ear this just went into a vocal limbo zone, showing perhaps that she made the right decision to omit the optional D flat at the end of Butterfly’s entrance. She received a justly deserved standing ovation from the premium seating area.

Tenor Mr La Spina sang the ‘cad’ role of Pinkerton with style and was even booed (slightly) at the end, as is traditional. It is a shame that he was not permitted to remain in his smart US Navy jacket for Act one as his imposing physique is not given to a bib-and-brace white pantaloon outfit.

As the American consul one-time tenor Barry Ryan showed that he has developed a substantial baritone voice which equalled and at times even dominated the tenor who he was counselling ‘diplomatically’ in Act 1. This moved to consoling and even condemning his countryman by the end of the opera.

The performance was billed to be conducted by Phillippe Auguin but for some unexplained reason Massimo Zanetti is on the podium until 28th Jan when Tom Woods takes over (and Ms Racette is replaced by Antoinette Halloran). The orchestra under Maestro Zanetti was excellent and received a huge ovation. We are fortunate also to have the chorus of the national company which is well schooled under chorus master Michael Black.

It was gratifying to see a full house and let’s hope this bodes well for the rest of this season in contrast to previous ones. I can recall very few full houses at the Sydney Opera House since Sutherland’s farewell 1990. The price of a good seat can nudge $300 now and the average seat is significantly more expensive than at the Met in New York. Cinema presentations may seem like competition but they are also a useful recruiting ground.

While this 'high-octane' production and would be ideal for any new opera goer, even Madama Butterfly can suffer from over-exposure. The company will have done 40 performances in barely two years! I don't think I need to see Madama Butterfly again for some time … and when I do I would prefer a more traditional production.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..