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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.