Andrew's Opera was previously published at

01 November, 2012

Rodelinda in Sydney under Bonynge

Rodelinda - Handel (1725) J. Sutherland & R. Bonynge Foundation
City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney Sat 20th Oct 2012 7pm
Conducted by: Maestro Richard Bonynge AC CBE

Rodelinda: Valda Wilson
Bertarido: Fiona Janes
Grimoaldo: John Longmuir
Eduige: Liane Keegan
Unulfo: Lorina Gore
Garibaldo: Michael Lewis

Dear Colleagues in opera,

Sydney was treated to two stunning opera performances in the same week. It was more like New York! Richard Bonynge conducted the Australian premiere of Rodelinda (and possibly his last opera in the country). Lucia is the other (see my notes elsewhere).

Rodelinda was performed by Joan Sutherland on three separate occasions during her long career. The opera has been brought to a mass audience after centuries of neglect with Renee Fleming and the Metropolitan opera as well as live cinema sessions. Rodelinda lacks the extremely well-known melodies which crop up in so many other Handel operas. The story is complex and less than credible, starting with Queen Rodelinda mourning her deceased husband, Bertarido. Later in Act I the king, sung by Fiona Janes, miraculously returns from the dead to continue the complicated narrative. With only one duet and a quintet finale, the opera largely consists of marvellous individual
Handelian stand-and-deliver recitatives and arias from two sopranos, a mezzo, contralto, tenor and a baritone. There is no chorus.
In this first Australian performance, all the performers sang with consummate skill, navigating Handels fiendishly difficult coloratura, high notes, extreme low notes and ornamented da capo endings. Unlike when Joan Sutherland sang it, in this performance it would be hard to choose one star.

The much lauded diva Joan Carden was present in the audience to hear fine soprano performances from Ms Wilson and Ms Gore, each with pleasing vocalism and the necessary fioritura.

Ms Janes, well known to Sydney opera fans, gave an exemplary performance the accuracy and beauty of her fine voice is much missed by many Australian Opera goers.

Ms Keegan possesses a unique voice, a glorious true contralto. In the audience was one of Australias greatest contralto singers, Lauris Elms.

The young tenor John Longmuir sang with confidence and distinction and shows much promise. I had only heard him sing individual arias previously but here he seemed more relaxed and in perfect control in a full length opera.

It was good to hear veteran Michael Lewis using his fine baritone voice to advantage. While he sang some excellent showpieces, he alone was omitted from the marvellous finale ensemble Dopo la notte oscura’ (he had been killed by the king).

Maestro Bonynge with his small but accomplished orchestra accompanied with the formal conventions and limited metronomic freedoms expected of the baroque period. Sharolyn Kimmorley played harpsichord while her husband Brett Berthold played double bass. Jane Rutter was on flute with the Lyric Orchestra. Concertmaster was Adrian Keating from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. I hope that there was a representative of Opera Australia present to hear the excellent talents on offer.

The audience was almost as interesting as the show as many Sydney opera fans came out of the woodwork - and some had travelled far distances to hear this work with these artists. It is hard to go anywhere cultural and not run into Senator Bronwyn Bishop. Guests of honour included the Premier, Governor and Governor General.

The ovation was remarkable and respectful. Richard Bonynge received a spontaneous standing ovation when arriving on the podium before a note had been sounded. There was almost no clapping during the three acts - more like a concerto than an opera - which was convenient as ABC Radio was recording proceedings for future broadcast. We were witnessing the end of a glorious era of opera which began with the Sutherland Williamson Grand Opera Tour of 1965. It was most moving and there were red roses for the cast and tears all round.

I also had the good fortune to revisit Lucia di Lammermoor at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday 24th October. It was sensational and is highly recommended with one or two remaining performances. My more detailed notes on the web site.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

26 October, 2012

Ravenswood revamped. Lucia at the Sydney Opera House Wed 24th October 2012

Ravenswood re-visited. Lucia at the Sydney Opera House Wed 24th October 2012

Dear Colleagues,

I found myself back at my old Wednesday night subscription series, yet how things have changed!  There were empty seats in all reserves.  I noted that only one seat in the whole of Loge Y was sold, both a tragedy and a travesty in my view.  Why do such good value seats not go on sale until the day of the performance?  If tin-pot airlines can fill seats, why cant an opera company which is putting on half-decent opera?  I bought a $65 seat in Loge A, well forward of the front row of the dress circle, albeit on the side. 

This was operatic vocalism at its best despite a lacklustre production shared with Houston Grand Opera.  Chorus and principal singing were exemplary and there were goose-bumps aplenty for those subject to such responses (like me!). 

I have never heard Lucia’s Act I cadenza (Quando rapito in estasi) in its entirety until this production.  Even Joan Sutherland did not sing it all in the second half of her career. 

I ran into a few other long-time subscribers (‘survivors’).  One said that he and his wife were enjoying the performance but they had not really appreciated just how good Joan Sutherland was in this role all those years ago.  This was in the second interval and while Emma Matthews is NO Joan Sutherland, like a true trooper, she was saving herself up for Act III in which she let fly.  Emma Matthews gave us the full mad scene, blood, guts, sex and all.  It was as if the vocal governors were removed and throttle enhanced as we had almost fifteen minutes of unparalleled vocal dynamism. 

The production, however, put her in several ludicrous positions including hand washing in a champagne cooler filled with blood, lying under the banquet table, holding a mock-baby and another quasi-obstetric pose which was beyond good taste and some would say grossly offensive.  The chorus reactions were robotic and non-responsive and thus lacked any sense of alarm at the unfolding homicidal lunacy.  Yet they sang to perfection. 

The production’s grey-cloud simplicity was overshadowed by frequent ‘disconnects’ with the story line.  Furthermore, the ubiquitous representation of grey storm clouds were neither realistic nor beautiful, looking more like a lunar landscape than swirling storm portents.  Projections would have looked more atmospheric but the static grey templates were just boring to this viewer, especially as matching flats were raised and lowered ad nauseam to no particular purpose - except to end each act (which did not time correctly, three out of three). 

American tenor James Valenti sang beautifully but there were a couple of exposed high notes towards the end as he appeared to tire just on his highest legato register as he briefly sounded slightly reedy and lost the innate beauty of his marvellous voice.  Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro sounded fully in control, just as he did on opening night hitting some phenomenal terminal high notes, G natural or even A flat nailed to perfection (and more goose bumps).  Almost as exciting as Robert Allman who did this part so often in the ‘Sutherland days’. 

The opera company management has now largely moved on or passed away but a sorry decade has seen opera standards fall precipitously (present production happily excepted - may there be more!).  There have been statements from the company which were derogatory to subscribers.  Plus a continued emphasis on the importance of performing Wagner’s Ring, something obviously well beyond the capabilities of this emasculated company.  Other ‘side shows’ such as harbourside opera have been associated with a lack of concentration on the standard repertoire so it is no surprise that seat sales are still dropping.  I was told by a company insider that subscriptions had dropped by 15% each year for a number of years and this could not be sustained (obviously). 

Despite all this, or perchance as a portent of improvements, it was a privilege to be attending such high quality opera in our small and distant backwater.  Love Sydney! 

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

My sympathies to those affected by the terrible storm in North America. 

03 October, 2012

Glorious soaring opera with Lucia revisited at the Sydney Opera House.

Lucia di Lammermoor (or most of it), G. Donizetti. Sydney Opera House Friday 28th Sept 2012. 7.30pm

Dear Colleagues in opera,
It was like old times again! The opera company has got together a very auspicious cast for Lucia di Lammermoor at the Sydney Opera House.

It seems remarkable that Emma Matthews can successfully step into the roles of Joan Sutherland despite having a completely different voice type. Yet
canary type singers used to sing most of these roles before Maria Callas opened the way for changed possibilities. And Ms Matthews sang Lucia a treat, a role she has now made her own. But more than this, we had a great baritone, bass and tenor, plus two comprimarios, making for a fabulous sextet, one of the half dozen or so immortal moments of this very great work.

Starting with the difficult harp solo in Act I (virtuosically performed here), we might count into immortality the fountain aria (which the harp introduces); Lucia/Edgardo duet; Lucia yielding to Enrico and Raimondo; wedding scene, culminating in the celebrated sextet; post-wedding party, interrupted by Lucias famous mad scene and magnificent final cemetery scene of the tenor. Few operas have so many high points.

Baritone Giorgio Caoduro was our Barber of Seville last year and he did not disappoint on this occasion in an even more challenging role. Vocally this was highly satisfying, starting with some electrifying baritone singing in the opening scene, angry at his sisters reported romance with the young squire next door. Caoduro sang some optional high notes, using great skill, technique and good taste to deliver a glorious aria and cabaletta (no second verse to the latter in Act I).

I had heard American tenor James Valenti as Alfredo at the Metropolitan Opera two years ago. Again here, he acquitted himself with great panache and we were privileged to hear such a talented and beautiful artist. His tomb scene was very fine indeed. He too took most of the difficult and exciting options and also acted well.

Richard Anderson sang superbly as the tutor/priest although he was slightly under-powered compared with the others. Andrew Brunsdon sang a stately and formal Arturo while Teresa La Rocca played a fine Alisa, Lucias maid and confidente.

In this production the wolf crag scene was omitted, an unforgivable sin in my catechism. It contains an all-time great dramatic male duet which is hard to beat. Caoduro and Valenti would have shone in this glorious showpiece of opera and furthermore another generation of opera-goers would have experienced this classical gem of drama and vocalism. Even further pruning of the original occurred in the middle of the mad scene, all aimed, I imagine, at avoiding overtime in the orchestra. Yet this company aspires to perform Wagners Ring operas!

It is hard to explain why Australian maestro Richard Bonynge is not conducting this Lucia. He is in Sydney at present and has said that he would like more conducting work here. Again the company has let down its audience and overlooked the pre-eminent world specialist who in this case comes from Sydney. This is in no way disrespectful of Christian Badea who conducted superbly, even when faced with the appalling dilemma (see below) of a jammed opening curtain! And the orchestra received a rapturous and well deserved ovation at the start of Act III.

Sadly there were hundreds of empty seats in the house, something which is a sad testament to the poor management and marketing of the national opera company over almost a decade now. There were also dozens of complimentary audience members (they now have their own VIP box office window with two clerks!). The companys administration has gone from a couple of busy souls when the opera house opened to dozens and dozens of essential functionaries, all with offices, salaries and sometimes free tickets to boot. Gilbert and Sullivan could have written a comic opera on the matter if it werent such a tragedy of errors, egos and ignorance.

It will be difficult for the public to find out that this particular opera production is an exception to the usual tawdry quality opera in Sydney. Last weeks Madama Butterfly was a good example of what happens when fine but second rung artists are used in the absence of international quality talent (I only saw the first half). It is pointless bringing in promising young artists from overseas when we have plenty of them in Australia needing encouragement and nurturing. The lady singing Cio-cio-san was adequate, as was the (Australian) tenor singing Pinkerton. Michael Lewiss replacement was passable yet there was nothing to set the performance apart as more than an also-ran re-run of this Puccini classic (rather over-exposed by the company of late). Casual glances at the CV lists showed one singer cites a minor G&S role while another was with the National Opera of New York a company which, if it exists at all, is rather obscure. A school performance of Madama Butterfly could be just as thrilling, but would not cost up to $300 per seat. No wonder subscriptions are waning.

To my way of thinking this monochrome Lucia production was odd without any clear unifying theme apart from dark clouds galore. I hope that between the Houston Grand Opera and La Fenice not too much was spent on it. There was no furniture, no staircases, no castle themes and the like to put us in a particular century, yet the costumes were mostly and traditional and elegant. This production got just about everything wrong, starting with the full width set-back painted flat of thick, dark clouds in place of a curtain. It was evidently designed to be able to be raised, lowered, moved sideways and even tilted in the last act requiring enormous structural strength and careful engineering. 

Something happened on opening night whereby this wall of clouds stayed put during and after the overture (at least the first time it was played). Following the first few aborted lines of the invisible chorus the conductor stopped the orchestra and walked off, something I have never seen in the theatre before. He did not have much choice since the enormous flat had either jammed or the flymen had failed to raise it on time - so the performance ground to a halt. After an announcement to stay in your seats the flat was slowly winched up, perhaps by hand, and the performance re-started after about five minutes. This is live theatre, but one wonders about the benefits of a concert performance which has no distractions from poor sets, costumes and stage movements.

Due to this debacle it was hard for us to determine what was intended and what was contingency due to the fault. There was much raising and lowering of this and other painted flats, mostly to no particular purpose as cast members went below, around and behind them. Two huge inverted grey triangles were lowered during the fountain scene, again, for no obvious reason, except for Normanno to stand behind briefly. There was no fountain, needless to say, on the bare, grey stage. I heard from an insider later that the production was meant to emphasise the isolation of the characters, something that eluded this viewer.

When the opera re-started we had the spectre of Normanno, played by Jonathan Abernathy, standing stock still centre-stage glaring out at the audience. This character was used throughout the opera like Dr Grenvil in the recent clock La Traviata. Clever or stupid, take your pick. The idea did not distract - and it does come from the libretto (a line in the middle of the mad scene - which I think may have been omitted in this production [sic]). I cannot abide the innumerable inane chorus movements which were more like a military tattoo than Scottish clans-people meeting, greeting and partying. During important vocalism there was often a distracting backdrop of goose-stepping, befrocked chorus women and stick holding men.

Some of the vocal high points were sung far on the sides of the stage with the singers hidden from some side seats. The height of the productions inappropriateness came with the mad scene. Vocally it was a delight with Ms Matthews at the peak of her powers even adding some tasteful coloratura ornamentation of her own (or more likely from Richard Bonynge). However, the director had her spending almost the whole scene trying to wipe away the blood, like Lady Macbeth (Out damned spot). Lucias situation is the very opposite of the Scottish play: Lucia is totally oblivious to the blood which is not even mentioned in the aria whose words are pure folly, largely the fantasy of a continuing relationship with her real beloved. For some reason the font used on the subtitles was half sized and I found it difficult to read.

Tell your friends, despite all these draw-backs, this Lucia di Lammermoor is still worth a visit to the opera house for its short season! See the companys web site for dates and booking details. I would recommend the end stalls seats which are around $100 each, great value even for those paying with depreciated foreign currencies like US dollars, pounds or Euros.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:  

22 July, 2012

Pearlfishers at the Sydney Opera House - ‘passable’ performance but disappointing crowd

Les Pecheurs de Perles. Sydney Opera House. Wed 4th July 2012

This opera opening was of a fine standard overall yet the theatre was far from full for one of the most popular operas for Australian audiences. 

Andrew Jones is a fine full-throttle baritone while Henry Choo's tenor voice has lightened suitably for such French roles.  Both have clearly been working very hard on their art.  Soprano Nicole Car saved herself up for the last act and put on a balanced and stylish rendition of Leila, a very taxing role.  Basso Jud Arthur sang well as the priest.  The orchestra played well, as we have come to expect, under the baton of Maestro Guillaume Tourniaire.  Our chorus is also a credit to the company. 

The production is a blue back-dropped cardboard cut-out with clever illuminated miniatures visible at times.  It seems to ‘work’ with an Englishman as the protagonist in a white British uniform.  However, the name Zurga was a little out of place as was a foreigner being voted village chief - but THIS IS OPERA!  The ‘mateship’ or even gay interpretation all depended on the French for 'love' being almost the same as 'like'.  Zurga ends with "And I loved you" (about Nadir) implying a youthful affair-de-coeur between the men. 

My immediate neighbours in the theatre were overseas visitors, from Los Angeles and Ireland.  One couple was obviously from the Indian sub-continent so I wondered if, being new to opera, they might be insulted at the story-line set in their part of the world (albeit with a strongly European slant).  Not at all!  They commented in both intermissions how much they were enjoying their first opera. 

Now, back to the empty seats, hundreds of them.  Once upon a time this company played to near full houses most of the year, even mid-week.  By coincidence (or is it?) there is an interview with the company’s retiring marketing guru Liz Nield in this month’s OA newsletter.  She is quoted: “The skills that you need to sell opera are pretty much the same skills that you need to sell dog food.”  Yet she also said of the opera-on-the-harbour “the product sold itself”.  This is true of all quality products … although the harbourside opera was a big gamble in my view - but one that paid off on this occasion and was extremely memorable for those who went along.  The whole company could have come down with collective pneumonia had the weather been inclement. 

It is sad that the opera management is still in the clouds with self-congratulatory sentiments while the company itself lurches further and further from its former greatness.  At the height of the main winter season they will only do three opera performances for the whole of August … the rest is ‘South Pacific’.  No ‘opera’ from our premier ‘opera’ company for over three weeks!?  This is in breach of their mission statement from my reading of the document.  It is also possibly contrary to the spirit at least of their funding from the Australia Council as the country’s leading ‘opera’ provider.  There is nothing wrong with South Pacific … but opera it is not. 

It may be the first time in history that Aida is being marketed with photographs of Amneris.  This was brought to my attention by a long-time generous donor to the company who also pointed out the declining standards at our national company in recent years. 

In this Pearlfishers it was a shame that yet again, there was no serious international standard opera star to challenge and enrich the local excellent talent.  The company seems unwilling or unable to import big stars unlike in previous times.  It would be like Wimbledon happening with just English players.  ‘We have perfectly good tennis players here in England!’  And indeed we have very good opera singers in Australia … but they can never be ‘international’ unless they work with world leaders in the art.  Pearlfishers at the Sydney Opera House had Eric Cutler as tenor some years ago, a young American star ‘on the way up’.  We also had Australian baritone Michael Lewis at the peak of his powers.  Not only did these artists sing well, they had that special quality that one could not take one’s eyes off them.  There is an aura about stardom that is hard to delineate but easy to recognise when it is present.  This opera has been conducted by Richard Bonynge, a recognised world expert in French opera … and sadly another reluctant Opera Australia ‘cast-off’. 

When the new management was being sought I believed that the one essential criterion for a new artistic director was knowing the mobile number for Renee Fleming and/or some of the world’s other top opera artists. 

Dog food is one thing, but spectator sports are quite another.  I doubt that the London Olympic organisers are using the same techniques as for dog food advertising!  Opera is the Olympics of the arts in my (slightly biased) view. 

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

13 May, 2012

New Metropolitan Ring - Aussie connection!

The Met Ring. Cycle II starting with Rheingold Thurs 26th April 2012 (also see separate notes on Rheingold).  Die Walkure. Saturday 28th April 2012. 11am.  Siegfried Monday 30th April; Gotterdamerung 3rd April (evenings)

Why bother writing about it? 
It would be a challenge to describe what happens during the fifteen hours of vocal drama in the Lapage Ring at the Met this spring - and one I am not equal to.  I tried for Rheingold and hardly began to describe what happened in the introductory two and a half hours in my summary.  Furthermore, the operas have now all been broadcast to the cinemas of the world, mostly by direct transmission - exceptions being Japan, Australia and the Far East where delayed showings are necessary due to unfriendly time zones. 

The singers.
Apart from the novel production, the vocal high points are well known for example The Woodbirds songs, Ride of the Walkyries, Brunnhildes war cry, Wotans monologue, Wotans farewell, Wintersturme, Du bist de lenz, Gibichungs chorus, (de rigueur!) the fat lady singing’ (Siegfried love duet) and the immolation scene, to name just a few. 

Regarding the ‘large lady’, neither Brunnhilde this year is big.  A slight Katarina Dalayman sang with great confidence, ease and beauty.  Intriguingly she omitted the high note at the end of Siegfried, despite hitting lots of other high, almost icy notes in the lead-up.  Ms Westbroek did not scream as the sword (Notung) was pulled from the (two-plank) tree trunk she did, however, collapse at that moment with a great limp fall center stage.  Her Sieglinde was exemplary.  In a second Die Walkure we heard the Brunnhilde of Deborah Voigt, now again a slender and elegant singer but no better than Ms Dalayman and perhaps less balanced in her delivery. 

There were two last minute changes, one major and one minor.  Mr Gelb came out on stage before Die Walkure and related Mr Kaufmanns illness and the serendipitous availability of Mr van Acken, husband of Ms Westbrook (Sieglinde) in real life back in Holland.  A disappointed patron near me shouted refund!  It was 11am Saturday morning when few people would envisage going to an opera, let alone in these disastrous circumstances. 

The Dutch replacement tenor Mr van Acken sang creditably but was not quite in his wifes class.  I dont know how he learned the production in just a few hours!  And his German seemed fine.  The next performance of Die Walkure (cycle III) which I was also lucky enough to attend, had Australian tenor Stuart Skelton in the role of Siegmund and he was magnificent, even allowing for compatriotism.  The audience applause was rapturous for this consummate artist who, although also a stand-in, was amongst equals on the Met stage in this role which Placido Domingo had made his own for the past 15 years in this city. 

Having sung brilliantly in Rhinegold, Eric Owens illness saw Alberich played by Richard Paul Fink in the Gotterdamerung role.  The other cast members are mostly well known - and that is why they are singing at the Met.  Adam Diegel performed Froh with great dignity.  His rare and rounded tenor voice for his small part in Rheingold revealed a great talent which I would like to hear in other more major roles.  The confidence and elegance of Bryn Terfel as Wotan also warrants noting and he is now a true Wagnerian of the highest calibre in my view. 

Jay Hunter Morris has a pleasant, highly placed tenor voice with the staying power needed for Siegfried.  Stephanie Blythe is a marvel as Fricka.  The other singers in this years Met Ring were all of the highest calibre, too numerous to name in these superficial notes. 

The machine (all 48 tons of it!).
The set for all four operas consists of 24 rotatable flattened isosceles triangles each set on a horizontal axis which can be raised and lowered from the floor level to about half way up the proscenium.  Hence one side of each plank is flat while the other has an angle of about 150 degrees as part of the cog.  This convenient angle was used for the riverbank to great effect in the first opera as well as in perhaps a hundred other discrete and moving tableaux during the long saga ending back in the same place a full week later. 

One of the most realistic and effective uses for the planks was to form tree trunks.  The planks are actually made of some sort of interactive self-illuminating material which, like a computer screen, can change colours and patterns, presumably controlled by some computerised cue system.  There was also highly focused projection onto them and sometimes it was not clear if the present effect was one or the other or both used together. 

The opening in Siegfried was brilliantly evocative with a depiction of the forest floor in close-up.  Then, as the set rose, the vista changed to the roots, worms and insects in crevices below the ground.  There was also real beauty in the representations of the tree bark, leaf shadows, roots, snakes, birds and other forest dwellers.  At other times one was transported to an open rural landscape, a waterfall, stormy waves breaking, snow storm and other dramatic and usually very beautiful scenes. 

The machine makes some clicks and clunks at time, but no more than one often hears with standard stage machinery.  Those sitting in the front of the auditorium may have heard the pneumatic sounds of the centre of gravity of the planks rising which followed it by a few seconds each time.  Again, the nuisance value was modest and the benefits included being able to be as close as ever to Wagners specific instructions for his epic drama.  After the callisthenic displays, I was happy when the machine stopped moving for extended periods and one could focus on the marvellous palette it had created for the drama we were experiencing. 

Some high-points of the production.
Both Rhinemaiden scenes were magnificent the first with suspended singers/swimmers and riverbank settings.  The final one saw the ladies slipping and sliding on the most spectacular sloping rocks amid flowing water (which evocatively turned red when Gunter washed his hands of Siegfrieds blood). 

The Norns rope weaving scene was very cleverly and tastefully done.  Two dozen strands appeared as the curtain went up, each issuing from one of the plank ends.  These are about the only unfortunate and less-than-attractive points of the machine they look like temporary riveted letter boxed lined up.  The   24 suspended strands made three substantial ropes, one for each Norn.  These then joined into a major rigging which in turn shred and perished as the sorry story requires. 

The snow storm opening Walkure was indeed spectacular and immensely beautiful.  It is hard to describe the electric feeling that can be elicited by this unique orchestral introduction to the following 5 hours of glorious musical drama.  I have often complained about directors deciding to put stage events to overtures or preliminary music which were originally intended to be unaccompanied symphonia.  Lepage has here put two simple but beautiful video images to his audience, starting with constant breaking waves on a shoreline followed by a quite realistic snow storm across the screen.  Following all of this activity on stage, Hundings house with central tree was presented as ordered by the book. 

One of the most memorable stage tricks of all time MUST be Lepages serpent appearing in response to Alberichs transmutation using the Tarnhelm to the shock and/or hilarity of the packed Met audience, the front of a gnashing skeletal horror figure appeared on the right side of the stage with the corresponding tail flapping opposite, as if the beast went right around the theatre, town or perhaps the whole world!  Next Tarnhelm trick saw the frog as a small, slimy and sedant character, easily caught up in the net of Loge and Wotan.  Their plan was to pay off the castle Valhallas builders before the Giants took the agreed collateral being Freia, the goddess who grew the apples which kept all the gods from aging.  Anna Russell said at this point in the story: I am not making this up, you know! 

Fafners dragon cave was indeed impressive as was the blow-up out-sized nematode-headed beast.  To go further would be unfair on those intent on seeing this production which is bound to become a classic.  Not that everyone has to like it but I do. 

Maestro Fabio Luisi, producer Robert Lepage and their musical and artistic colleagues deserve many accolades for this marvellous addition to the Wagner canon. This production might be the closest to Wagners detailed instructions for the operas, some of which are seemingly impossible to physically enact on a 'normal' stage (like the famous ship sinking in La Gioconda by Ponchielli). With the projections and moving-plank stage virtually anything is possible. There must be innumerable others who should be credited with getting this enormous undertaking realised.

Speaking of which: some criticisms.
By the end of the long act I of Gotterdamerung we had some gratuitous and pointless uses of the planks to no particular dramatic purpose.  It was as if the director was saying the opera is nearly over but look what I can do with the controls.  At one point numerous planks were literally spinning, making some for some unpleasant noises as well as frantic movements on stage.  The opening of Act II of Gotterdamerung was immensely beautiful with a huge wall of small concentric circles of red and yellow with three niches for three statues of Wotan, Donner and Frika (these explode at the end).  However, rather than the curtain just rising to this, the team insisted on twisting and turning their machine in order to form it, taking ones attention away from the glorious orchestral introduction. 

Erdas sermons were solid and well delivered by Patricia Bardon when she was woken.  In Siegfried she reappears with her long white hair wearing a full length dress make of pieces of black pietra dura, appropriate perhaps for an Earth Goddess.  If others can get away with a dress made of meat I suppose biotite mica is equally possible.  It reflected rather uncomfortably in the curtain calls and I dont think that this heavy igneous style will take on more widely. 

It was an enormous privilege to join over 4000 people on this glorious Rhine journey and for untold more in cinema-land.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

03 May, 2012

Das Rheingold at the Met: complex stagecraft with great vocal story-telling.

Das Rheingold. Wagner. Met Opera NYC. Thurs 26th April 2012.

I attended the Met Rheingold having seen this production twice before, once in the cinema in Sydney and once at its opening in the theatre in March last year.  All three were splendid performances of the radical new production by Canadian Robert Lepage and his team.  This time I was also fortunate to be in central seats up the front of the theatre so that I could see the whites of their eyes!  It was an added privilege to see the conductor side-on for the entire performance as he directed two and a half hours of incomparable continuous drama, vocalising and orchestral playing. 

In fact the performance was truly magnificent in every way.  Not one singer let the side down they all possessed large and elegant voices.  For me the greatest pleasure of Rheingold was again hearing Stephanie Blythe in the role of Fricka.  Her voice is an acoustic flow of glorious vocal caviar, served up to a receptive and doting Met audience (as well as the world of cinema screens).  Her dramatic credulity is supreme as a mature authority figure even though her considered advice is ignored by Wotan her uncommon law husband. 

The surprise of the night for me was bass baritone Bryn Terfel playing Wotan the wanderer.  He had seemed ill-at-ease in this role last year but now assumes a dramatic confidence and vocal output which approaches the ideal in this challenging part (he is in the first three Ring operas).  It would seem that Mr Terfel may be completing the difficult transition from a lighter Mozart/Puccini/Verdi singer to becoming a true Wagnerian.  It might be like a sprinter becoming a marathon runner. 

Brothers Alberich (Eric Owens) and Mime (Gerhard Siegel) need to have not only pleasant voices but also ones capable of expressing anger, fear, pride and sometimes ugliness itself.  They too were perfect for the job.  The giants are again played by Messers Konig and Selig, an ideal deadly duo.  Loge was well played by Adam Klein as Stefan Margita was indisposed (nothing is easy in opera management).  Adam Diegel made a handsome Froh (spring) with a voice to match along with his partner demi-God Dwayne Croft as Donner (thunder). 

The stage effects were awesome using the new 50 tonne multiple see-saw machine.  The Rhinemaidens floating introduction was almost unbelievable with weightlessness, bubbles, sandy-bottom pebbles and other quasi-realisms amongst the fantastic.  The lateral twisted staircase for the journey to Neibelheim was cleverly evocative.  The rainbow bridge at the end was a vertical climb by under-weight stunt-persons with string-like technicolour projections forming the bridge itself which flattened out on the enormous set as the last strains of the opera were heard. 

Maestro Fabio Luisi, producer Robert Lepage and their artistic and musical colleagues deserve many accolades for this marvellous addition to the Wagner canon.  This production could be the closest to Wagners detailed instructions for the operas, some of which are seemingly impossible to physically enact on stage (like the famous ship sinking in La Gioconda).  With the projections and moving-plank stage virtually anything is possible.  No longer is there a lighting director (Etienne Boucher) working in isolation since every scene has its own cascade of video images, requiring Boris Firquet the resident Imaging Artist (done by Pedro Pires in Siegfried). 

My apologies to readers for this incomplete Ring summary some might find it heresy.  I am trying to digest the multifarious aspects of the following two operas as well as preparing myself for Gotterdamerung.  Readers may have read that Jonas Kaufmann pulled out of Die Walkure at short notice and that subsequent events made a story in the next days New York Times.  Next weeks Die Walkure will see Australian Stuart Skelton again in the role of Siegmund.  

Andrew Byrne ..

01 May, 2012

Met Manon magnificent

Manon by Massenet 7.30 - 11.30pm Monday 22nd April Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Dear Colleagues,

Notes on performances at the Met seem almost passé these days when one can listen to every performance as well as seeing the HD video transmissions beamed into remote places (even Bowral, New South Wales, where I now live half the week).

However, at the risk of bragging that “I am in New York” as well as possibly giving superfluous information I hope my few words are still amusing and/or informative. I should also describe something about the overall experience of attending this enormous opera barn, the second largest in the world and certainly the busiest. However, the Met is NOT the most expensive by any means - just look up their excellent web site - lots of good opera positions for $100 or less plus standing room for very modest sums.

This Manon outing was splendid with Ms Netrebko being ‘hot’ in every respect. She has a large and beautiful voice, stunning looks and brilliant acting abilities. She is Manon to a tee … and for five action-filled acts, one with two scenes, one being a cloister, not for Manon as originally intended by her family, but her estranged paramour the young Des Grieux.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala sang this challenging role with great aplomb even though as this month’s Opera News points out that the ideal French tenor hardly exists today. In Manon, along with a full dramatic and vocal book, he is required to sing two phenomenally difficult and contrasting arias, ‘En fermant les yeux’ and ‘Ah! Fuyez douce image’. Beczala succeeded with style, emotion and dignity. [I heard that he also sang ‘Leve-toi soleil’ at a concert this week in California which was reported to be rapturously received.]

Pelly’s new co-production with London is quirky and eclectic with skylines of little box houses, church steeple, bridges, etc then strange leaning angles and Escher-type perspectives … very clever and very ‘different’ from the traditional productions. This is the new trend at the Met - to do new ‘takes’ on popular operas without losing the dramatic realism New York audiences seem to want. And these days there always seems to be an eye on the cinematic possibilities as these are beamed to a far wider audience that in the theatre itself.

In a very French way Pelly nearly always does the opposite of what one might expect … for example, instead of a carriage and horses in Act I we have the appearance of a large assortment of luggage. Rather than Des Grieux caressing Manon at the end of the St Suplice scene, it is Manon who practically assaults the cleric, ripping his dog’s collar and shirt half off and pulling him into the tiny bed in the priest’s quarters as the curtain drops.

The other scenes use wide ramps in opposing directions, black and grey contrasting with bright colours. There is an almost archetypical French female ballet scene with 16 immaculate white-frocked dancers in the street for Manon’s benefit (it could be Swan Lake), but she ignores Guillot’s ballet on overhearing the current abode of Des Grieux across Paris. The final scene is just a drab waterfront with some street lamps on the left and a jetty and warehouse on the right and massive expanse of blue beyond, presumably Atlantic gloom.

Baritone Paolo Szot was replaced by Michael Todd Simpson who sang creditably. The latter sang Escamillo in Sydney some years ago. The older Des Grieux was well sung by rich-voiced basso David Pittsinger. The French language seemed passable to me but some French nationals sitting nearby told me that it was often less than comprehensible, ‘fifty-fifty’ they said … except for Guillot de Monfontaine (Christophe Mortagne) who is French himself. Other roles were all acquitted well while Fabio Luisi and his orchestra received a well deserved ovation. This busy maestro will conduct Traviata on Wednesday, Rhinegold on Thursday and Die Walkure on Saturday. Some schedule!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog:

30 April, 2012

Violetta expires after Act I, not III. But the show goes on!

La Traviata at the Met - Two Violettas for the price of one.  8.30pm Sat 21st April 2012.  Re-visited on Wednesday 25th April. 

Dear Colleagues,
This Salzburg production by Willy Decker promised much and delivered more at the Met.  Already known as the clock Traviata, Dr Grenvil lurks throughout the evening as if a portent of death.  The clock-face itself is used in many ways during the evening.  Normally just marking the minutes to midnight, its hands spin at one stage and are stopped by a distressed soprano as if to delay the inevitable while she has a good time.  The hands are removed in another instance and used by a picador in the bull fight scene.  The clock face becomes a roulette table and finally the death bed. 

On the first night under maestro Steven White Natalie Dessay sounded ill at ease, especially in the lower register which at times was almost inaudible.  She only lasted to the end of Sempre libera (leaving out the unwritten E flat) and was replaced by Hei-Kyung Hong for the remainder of the opera.  The latter was excellent and she received a generous and well deserved ovation.  By the Wednesday performance Ms Dessay was back in good voice although it is hard to think that this is her ideal role. 

The real star of the night was Dmitri Hvorostovsky whose performance was a lesson in deportment and elegance … and who sang superbly.  A bit like Sherrill Milnes at his peak, he is now a veritable vocal institution.  On both the nights I attended there was applause even before he started singing.  In the Saturday performance under maestro White he took some alternative vocal options in the recitatives, using grace notes, alternative high notes, appoggiaturas and other ornaments these were all omitted on the Wednesday, perhaps because of the return of chief conductor Fabio Luisi to the podium.  At all times Mr Hvorostovsky was completely in control and all the options were tasteful and relatively minor.  He not only has the vocal line fully in the voice but he also takes the drama seriously and is as credible in the role as one could imagine.  Every movement, from his feet to his hands, was carefully calculated as if it were individually choreographed for total realism. 

His main aria, Di Provenza il mar il suol was unhurried and immensely beautiful.  Mr Hvorostovsky also sang the cabaletta following and proved to me for the first time that it DOES fit in the score.  Many serious opera buffs say this was one of Verdi's few mistakes.  Personally, I love it.  But the difference here was that the Met star sang it legato and not as a syncopated canter that others often do.  He makes this rather unusual piece perfectly in character right before the end of the scene which otherwise ends abruptly with Alfredo finding the invitation and declaring his intention to seek revenge at the Paris party. 

Tenor Matthew Polenzani is more than adequate as Alfredo, a role which veteran singer Vinson Cole calls a 'killer'.  Polenzani has a large voice which could easily lose control yet he schools the lines, colouring virtually every note individually using an elegant innate musicality.  After a lovely cabaletta 'O mio rimorso' he also pulled off the singular feat of an exposed, extended terminal high C.  For stage presence he could take some lessons from the baritone, but so could all opera singers.  I cannot imagine anyone looking more comfortable, confident and natural on stage than Mr Hvorostovsky. 

Mr Deckers production is now well known from DVD's, cinema and possibly television.  Some like it, some dont.  But if you cannot have the old Met Traviata production which was so lavish and grand then this is a very different and valid interpretation.  It breaks rules, pushes boundaries and can claim to have various levels of meaning with the giant clock, ever-present doctor Grenvil character, red dress, red shoes and unisex chorus.  For the second act there was the very clever use of bolts of highly coloured, black background, floral fabrics and projections above the curved set.  The lovers were both in patterned floral dressing gowns to match the other fabrics.  Scene two continues immediately without a pause as does the final act, a death scene starting in the casino.  It was rather disconcerting that a stage full of people slowly emptied by slow-shuffling backwards as the music for the next act progressed in the pit.  One felt concerned that someone would fall over and it served little dramatic purpose to my mind. 

Decker includes Violetta in the beginning of Act II using a hide-and-seek segment with Alfredo, causing some incongruity with the libretto but this is the theater!  Some of the translations were changed to suit the production: ‘Did you need me?’ sings Annina, played by Maria Zifchak, rather than ‘Did you call me?’ (there was no bell as is traditional).  As the happy rustic affair sours with the arrival of Alfredos father the coloured fabrics are pulled off the white sofas.  Likewise, the floral projection above turns gradually to monochrome. 

The enormous hyperbolic curved set restricts the possible movements to a single entrance on the left and a gallery above the dip of the hyperbola.  There is also a huge curved bench reminiscent of the whispering gallery in St Pauls cathedral in London.  And true to form, at sensitive spots in this amphitheatre, there is accentuation of the voices through focused reflection of the sound into the auditorium.  On the whole it was all rather beautiful and the performances were highly enjoyable for this patron. 

Comments by Andrew Byrne .. (currently in the middle of Ring Cycle 2 at the Met along with over 100 other Aussies!)