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09 July, 2013

Glorious Sydney Tosca - roll up, roll up!

Tosca - Puccini - Sydney Opera House Saturday 6th July 2013

Dear Colleagues,

Opera is about voice, voice and more voice.  Clothed in marvellous costumes and a life-like Roman Catholic setting around 1940 this Tosca would satisfy the most demanding opera goer and equally, win over any budding novice, largely on the voices which were magnificent. 

As Cavaradossi, tenor Mr Yonghoon Lee was first class.  Slender, tall and Bohemian looking, his splendid performance drew a (partial) standing ovation at the end.  His Metropolitan and La Scala appearances were highly praised, with good reason it seems. 

Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou performed the title role with gusto, flair and beauty.  Her voice is enormous, accurate and well modulated.  There is not the length of breath to emulate CaballĂ© in her unique Vissi darte, yet the high tensile vocalism was extremely effective and comparisons are odorous, as the Bard wrote.  We last heard her in La Rondine with the SSO in 2008 when she was equally impressive. 

Veteran baritone John Wegner seemed slightly under-power as the evil Nazi sympathiser Scarpia and one wondered if he was harbouring a winter virus.  He was menacing and effective nonetheless. 

Supporting artists David Parkin (Angelotti) and John Bolton-Wood (Sacristan) were also excellent. 

Direction by John Bell was sympathetic and effective, making this opening one of the most enjoyable opera performances I have heard in Australia for some time.  Bell set the piece in the high Nazi period but Swastikas were only used on three occasions, including a ripped red banner used to cover Scarpias body.  I learned later that two incensed Jewish patrons were responsible for booing at the end.  There were a couple of anomalies and some brilliant innovations, including Toscas death.  Such is opera, raising emotions of all kinds! 

It was a major risk doing yet another production of Tosca in Sydney, especially doing 19 performances.  So many subscribers have abandoned their long held seats that the company will have enormous trouble clawing back support.  Eventually they will run out of musical comedy or else the Australia Council will realise that its funds are not being spent on opera.  Each year of late the company has simply replaced the shrinking opera audience with musical comedy to make ends meet.  This year has yet another very long season of South Pacific (Sept 8 to Nov 2 in Sydney and up to 12th January 2014 in Adelaide and Perth).  Thats a third of the year spent on non-core opera activities for the national opera company!  The once almost unobtainable Gala opening night seats are now freely available and some people I ran into did not even know that it was opening night.  

There are only nine performances with the opening cast of lovers - then Cheryl Barker sings with Diego Torre, both also highly competent artists. 

But they are also being overworked.  On numerous occasions singers are to perform with only one days break, contrary to a long tradition in serious opera houses of using two lay days between performances.  During one nine day period they are to sing five performances, a super-human feat some might think.  Grand opera is akin to marathon running where pacing oneself in a performance, a season or a career are all crucial decisions. 

So if you can get along to the Sydney Opera House I highly recommend this cast and this new magnificent production of Tosca. 

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

06 July, 2013

La Forza del Destino - Sydney Opera House: season opening, Sat 29th June

If you can get to see this opera this short season you will not be disappointed.  There are four excellent imported artists with three or four top-rate Australians in one of Verdis most melodic and melodramatic works.  It has one of the most inventive overtures every written, vying for equal place with Nozze di Figaro and Semiramide.  The production, sets & costumes are quite brilliant with an almost credible take on an unbelievable story.  Superbly conducted by Andrea Licata and with a top-rate orchestra and chorus you have a classy opera on a winters night in a classic building. 

Svetla Vassileva (Leonora) was top class with several 'tricks' including pianissimo broadening to forte with very long breath control.  Still not a unique voice but very pleasant quality and pin-point control and accuracy.  Fine looking woman with good acting abilities. 

Riccardo Massi (Don Alvaro) like so many tenors somewhat awkward.   Yet a gifted top, despite some ugliness in the delivery at times.  The black eyes and a tall, lumbering frame made him look like someone from the Adams Family.  Hard to imagine him trying to look handsome as the eloping party in the opening scene in which he goofed with the gun and accidentally killed his potential father-in-law (this is opera, ladies and gentlemen). 

As Don Carlo di Calatrava was veteran baritone Jonathan Summers in excellent form despite turning 67 this year he looks and sounds far younger that's another sign of a 'pro' in any field. 

Giacomo Prestia (Padre Guardiano) marvellous basso with the rest.  Hard to imagine anyone doing this role any better. 

Same could be said of Ms Rinat Shaham (Preziosilla) who pulled out all the stops as obviously demanded by the director, and some vocal risks to boot.  She has an effective trill and a high extension which was used well on all but one occasion with a slightly clipped ?B flat but no shame in that for a mezzo.  It is still surprising that an Australian could not have been available of the same or even better calibre. 

Warwick Fyfe was simply excellent dramatically and vocally with his booming almost blustering voice as the impatient, intolerant and irreverent monk Melitone. 

Despite enjoying this opera at the time, I am now feeling that we were lacking a star to raise the rest to an even higher level.  The singers were all very good but somehow there was a focus on accuracy, high notes, trills, etc but lacking a particular unique characteristic or rare beauty of voice, things which cannot be learned.  Someone with the accuracy, technique, projection ability PLUS distinct vocal beauty is automatically a star in my book we have not heard a real star in Sydney for a number of years now (is there an exception to this I wonder?).  Indeed such singers are quickly snapped up by the great opera houses and become the talk of the field, recordings, media darlings and sometimes mythology - Melba farewells and muck-singing for example. 

When people look back at the decades of the 20th century there were half a dozen in each who fitted the bill so such 'stardom' is a pretty rare commodity.  In the 1980s and 90s the Australian audience enjoyed Sutherland routinely but also heard Pavarotti, Leona Mitchell, Johan Botha, Lisa Connell, Sumi Jo, Regina Schorg, Donald McIntyre, Vinson Cole, Marilyn Zschau, Eva Marton, Carol Vaness, Peter Glossop, Sherril Milnes, Huguette Tourangeau, Marilyn Horne (concert only), Kiri Te Kanawa, Fiorenza Cossotto, Pilar Loringar, Regina Resnik and Angelo Marenzi (a very incomplete list). 

Like Tiger Woods with golf and all the other names one associates with the top people in tennis, athletics, football, etc.  Star quality is easy to recognise when it comes along, even by people who don't know much about ballet/sport/music, etc.  As a boy I once saw Richie Benaud bat from the hill at the SCG and it was entrancing and Im no cricket fan.  Part of the enjoyment is observing the reactions of other members of the audience, and likewise, bad vibes from neighbours can spoil what might otherwise be a perfectly creditable performance.  Most of all, stars pull in a new audience and Pavarotti was probably the most important star of our era to popularise opera as Callas, Caruso, Melba and other immortals did in the past. 

Am I expecting too much?  Of course I am.  I want a bigger hall with better acoustics.  I want bigger orchestra plus STAR quality opera singers.  And a free car park.

In the intermissions the administrative staff members all looked very pleased with themselves.  Yet it is their company which has now replaced over two months of traditional opera with musical comedy while also failing to produce many if any true international stars in their seasons until very recently.  The subscriber base has been contracting due to so much repetition of poor quality opera so now the company do not need to schedule so many opera performances ... it is a repeating cycle and one wonders where it will end. 

Looking forward to a new Tosca next week.  But I looked forward to the last two productions, too.  \
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..