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19 February, 2015

Faust at Sydney Opera House ... opera at its very best!

Faust by Gounod at the Sydney Opera House Tuesday 17th Feb 2015
This was the most totally enjoyable and enthralling opera performance I have seen in Australia for years.  Few of the New York Mets recent performances I have seen exceeded the quality and quantity of this rendition of Gounods Faust by veteran David McVicar and Charles Edwards (sets). 
It was like old times when we often saw a clever production with high quality orchestra under Guillaume Tourniaire.  But this time we also had top class singers from here and overseas with some very special high points both dramatically and vocally.  Most every production detail came from the libretto. 
This opera production has EVERYTHING when in doubt, add more!  Love scene, soldiers’ chorus, mad scene, serious ballet, religious saviour scene, devil-takes-all, wine-from-water, blood from stone, group sex, sword fight, death scenes, etc plus lots and lots of beautiful singing.  And much of it is can belto - from the absurd reductio school of (1) bel canto, (2) can belto, (3) cant belto, (4) cant canto.  But devil do’th. 
The production was dominated by a massive mobile set of stairs leading to a pipe organ high on stage right.  Sets moved through a small chapel, village square, adjoining town houses, massive church centrepiece, interiors and more.  Costumes were colourful, traditional and often ravishing.  Lighting was atmospheric and meaningful.  A discussion in the interval with a psychiatrist informed me that Goethe's story is really just about all of us as we get older ... we would like to relive previous pleasures, we would like to be young again, we are constantly tempted by devils of all types.  Yet it is a fantasy. 
Teddy Tahu-Rhodes may be the most over-exposed baritone in Australia, much amplified in musical comedies.  Yet he returns to opera and sings and acts at the highest standard, and rarely with as many costume changes as this Mefisto.  Most dramatic and unexpected perhaps was the drag devil dressed suddenly in a large black gown with low cleavage and bustle, hosting a raunchy hot spot cabaret in Paris, complete with Tour Eiffel proscenium. 
New American Tenor Michael Fabiano is indeed impressive - starting with an almost unbelievable transformation from frail, suicidal geriatric to Hollywood handsome tenor.  And he can sing.  High, low, fast, slow, loud, soft he has it all.  And with breath control to manage any legato line and more.  Salut, demeure chaste et pure was beautifully interpreted.  Not a hint of falsetto in this aria yet he used a customised soprano range to advantage elsewhere in Act 3.  On his web page Fabiano sings the almost unsingable aria (resurrected by Richard Bonynge) from Act III of Lucrezia Borgia.  And unlike each previous rendition I have heard, it is supremely beautiful to the fiendishly difficult last notes. 
Australias Nicole Car sings Marguerite with √©lan and ease, soaring to the highest notes after expressive legato singing.  Her trill is not like Sutherlands but nobodys is!  And unlike the latter, Car can look young, virtuous and virginal.  Her Jewel song was deservingly well received as were her tonsillar hystrionics towards the end of the opera.  The operas final trio was absolutely and heavenly elating, including organ and ethereal choir (unseen in the auditorium from darkened loges C and Z). 
Giorgio Caoduro sings the ill-fated soldier brother Valentin with a most professional delivery.  His early party-stopper Avant de quitter ces lieux was splendid as was his dramatic death scene in act IV.  He showed fine portamento and never appeared beyond his substantial limits. 
Character roles Siebel, Wagner and Marthe were all well acquitted by company regulars Anna Dowsley, Richard Anderson and Dominica Matthews. 
I often find ballets in operas become boring and repetitive not so in this performance which had extensive and explicit dances in Act V. 
I am still concerned about vocal damage from second daily opera singing by the four principal singers - there are 3 performances in the first five days!  Does the company seriously think that centuries of experience and Maria Callas example were just wrong as they frequently break the two lay-day rule?  Animals have the RSPCA but singers don't even have a strong union!  Agents have a short term conflict of interest.  I spoke to a board member and retired singer during the single interval.  He agreed that he never sang more than two operas in a week, a testament to his career of 30+ years at the highest level with some of the greatest singers of the 20th century.  Yes, I may sound like a cracked record, cracked record, cracked record ...
My advice if you are in Sydney in the next three weeks: just get a ticket for this Faust despite a full house on opening night, loges B and X were virtually empty (sold only on the day of the performance and less than $50 per seat I believe).
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
For those keen on cantorial singing (and Les Mis) try:

03 February, 2015

Madama Butterfly, Sydney Opera House, Tues 27 Jan 2015

A simple opera review may be largely positive - despite the soprano failing to sing her most important high notes adequately.  But more needs to be said (see below). 

On this opening night none of the singers seemed quite right for their respective jobs, most notably Cio-cio-san.  Ms Voulgaridou simply does not have the top notes for this role.  She also clipped the final notes of Vissi d’arte in last year’s Tosca when she stood in at short notice.  Few dramatic sopranos have the optional but enormously exciting D flat at the end of Butterfly’s entrance.  But to clip the final note of the love duet ending the same act (and a related melodic line) is unacceptable.  The tenor, Mr Egglestone, continued singing his notes long after the soprano’s voice had expired.  Even more disappointing was the ending of ‘Un bel di’ (One fine day) when Ms Voulgaridou simply ‘sqeaked’ a final note, standing arms extended for the remainder of the orchestral ending looking like a statue waiting for the applause (which came in polite abundance).  To give her credit, the singing was mostly tasteful, strong and effective.  One pianissimo high note after the flower scene in Act 2 was particularly impressive.  Her death scene was also creditable.  But was she playing a geisha or was she playing herself?  I have still never worked out why Cio-cio-san is called Madama and not Mademoiselle/a.  Was she betrothed to another before the age of 15? 

Mr Egglestone had all the notes for this American ‘cad’ role … as did Mr Honeyman playing the US consul in Nagasaki.  Yet neither seemed to be truly comfortable in their parts and at times I wondered if they actually knew what words they were singing.  Sian Pendry as Suzuki was excellent. 

An honest reviewer needs to put a tolerable performance into context.  Why are we hearing this production of Butterfly yet again?  And why the fine production of Tosca by John Bell again after just 18 months?  And why is Tosca using three overseas principal artists and a foreign conductor, aged 28?  And why repeats of La Boheme and Magic Flute in the same month as Butterfly and Tosca?  Could it be symptomatic of an “opera” company which is now run by business people and not opera lovers?  These reprises are obviously a survival policy of pushing wholesale performances of popular operas and musicals.  And such merciless recycling contrasts with decades of serious and varied opera repertoire using largely local talent, supplemented with the world’s best overseas singers, conductors and directors.   No more. 

For the first ‘novelty’ of the season we look forward to Faust in three weeks.  Yet that opera’s very popularity once caused a New York reviewer to rename the Met the “Faustspeilhaus”!  A revival of Don Carlo by Verdi is also due in the winter season.  But that does not constitute a “season” by historical standards and will not interest regular subscribers, most of whom have either dropped out or must be thinking of so doing. 

An examination of the company’s calendar reveals their destructive policy of major roles being sung with only one day’s break (eg. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) contrary to the long standing practice of two ‘lay days’ between ‘big sings’.  I note Ms Voulgaridou sings on several occasions with only one day’s break.  This is a very dangerous and slippery slope.  The management is risking the voices of their singers, quite contrary to their mandate for funding from the Australia Council to nurture such talent.  Several of the members of management are singers themselves who must know better but have chosen to look the other way.  On at least two occasions this season the same opera is performed on successive days, a very risky practice, unless there are two understudies for the major roles. 

Rather than carefully husbanding its own stable of artists as in the past, the national company now seems to use dial-a-singer.  This is far from the days when it employed over 100 full time artists.  I have been told that they no longer employ any great number of singers (if any) on a full time basis. 

On another note, there were dozens of opera company staff and family in the theatre on opening night.  One wonders if the company pays fringe benefit tax on all of those free tickets (and in some cases, programs and interval drinks).  For its first 40 years this company’s opening nights were virtually always sold-out and free tickets were unheard of except for dress rehearsals. 

This season we will have had three opening nights in a row on a Tuesday.  Tenor Denis O’Neill used to say that he far preferred Friday and Saturday openings.  Few country patrons can make it mid-week while others in pressured city jobs may also be detained by the work-a-day week. 

Although this company performed the Ring operas in Melbourne one wonders when they might perform a Wagner opera in Sydney … or Puccini’s Trittico … a Czech opera … or any number of diverse masterpieces from the serious and profound repertory of the opera world starting in 1597 in Florence.  I have only been once, but I strongly recommend Pinchgut Opera.   

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..