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29 December, 2016

Handel’s Theodora at Wynard in Sydney.

An impressive production of Handel’s Theodora at Angel Place 6/12/16. 
I was bowled over by the whole operatic experience at Pinchgut Opera and would recommend it highly for 2017.  Despite an open stage at the City Recital Hall we saw a virtually fully staged version of this neglected gem thanks to brilliant director Lindy Hume and maestro Erin Helyard. 
The principal singers were all of the highest calibre, supported by the 'Cantillation' chorus and Pinchgut orchestra.  It is always nice when one can interact with the performers and at the Recital Hall one walks past the musicians coming into the theatre.  One could not ignore the huge contrabassoon both physically (it seemed to be about 3 metres long) as well as its booming place in the complex score of this baroque opera.  I think I noted a wooden flute too, reminding us why this brass instrument is still classified as a ‘woodwind’. 
Theodora is a simple but shocking story of early Christians in Roman Antioch during the pagan festival of Venus and Juno.  One young Roman soldier converts to Christianity for love while another becomes very sympathetic.  The staunch and unrepentant Christian is the beautiful young virgin of the title. 
And Valda Wilson sang the role superbly … with dignity and vocal aplomb, despite being condemned to work in a brothel for her baptismal crime against the Roman gods. 
We meet our protagonists initially around a large raised table, brilliantly set as a modern boardroom meeting.  Following amusing domestic preliminaries, the dignitaries are addressed by Valens, the Roman bully-in-charge, well sung by basso Andrew Collis.  The love-struck Didymis was played by Christopher Lowrey, a counter-tenor with a most pleasing voice.  I do not warm to many male sopranos (apart from David Daniels, of course) yet here was beauty, style and flair in his rendition of the fiendish vocal lines by Handel.  Soldier Septimus was English tenor Ed Lyon and Irene was played by sumptuous mezzo Caitlin Hulcup … both excellent operatic voices and actors to wit. 
The start of Act 2 was another piece of theatrical originality being a drunken bacchanal which started half way through the intermission.  As we came back into the hall the singers were already lurching around the stage one by one, bantering with orchestra members, muttering, laughing and generally making a stage-party by the time we were all seated.  The drama then took us through all the emotions as Theodora's paramour Didymis becomes her first customer, only to swap clothes and attempt escape from the brothel.  
It is telling that this venue can be so intimate and user-friendly at just half the price per ticket as Opera Australia which was concurrently engaged in a Ring series of operas in Melbourne for the very select few who can afford the time, travel and enormous ticket prices.  One has an overwhelming feeling of youth, vitality and professional enthusiasm at Pinchgut performances.  This is quite the opposite of the national opera company which has become so survival-conscious, negative and pusillanimous in almost everything it does these days.  And YES, I am very jaded that the Ring was done again in Melbourne rather than Sydney (but spare me the reasons).  However, hats off to the national company for putting Greta Bradman into La Boheme next week.  Toi, toi, toi! 
Get a brochure for Pinchgut in 2017!  And if you want to see serious international quality opera in an opera house, go to San Francisco! 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. Wishing all readers a happy and prosperous New Year for 2017. 

15 September, 2016

Sydney Cosi fan tutte. Also 2017 season balagan.

‘Cosi fan tutte’, Sydney Opera House, Thursday 11th August 2016.

I have some very complimentary words about this Mozart classic. A mostly local cast and stylish new production by David McVicar yielded a full nights Mozart/da Ponte comedy starting at 7pm. Personally I have always had problems with this masterpiece, finding it long and predictable, despite the glorious vocals entailed. Opera stories always extend credulity here and there but this opera does so from start to finish. But I know I am in a minority. Even a veteran performance in the 1980s with Zubin Mehta, Cecelia Bartoli, Lella Cuberli, Joan Rodgers, Kurt Streit, Ferruccio Furlanetto and John Tomlinson could not convert me. Even the title is sexist and would probably not pass today's political correctness censor.

It was gratifying to find a full house on this occasion in Sydney and a balanced Aussie cast of principals with orchestra and chorus up to high standards. Ms Car showed off her big, crystal soprano voice but seemed to be stumped by some of the long phrases, taking an extra breath as mezzo colleague Anna Dowsley sang through the tough tessitura on at least two occasions. American tenor David Portillo (replacing Charles Castronovo for unstated reasons) and Andrew Jones are the play-within lovers while Taryn Fiebig and Richard Anderson play Despina and Don Alfonso in the totally unbelievable plot (a magnet reverses a placebo poison - REALLY?). Conducted by Jonathan Darlington with splendid orchestra and chorus one could be transported by the music to a Neapolitan pantomime.


2017 Season Brochure released by Opera Australia in winter 2016.

This is the worst mish-mash of an 'opera' season from the supposedly national opera company that I have ever seen. While part of the reason is the closure of the opera theatre from March many other venues were available but now seem to be booked out and the company, as ever of late, is on the back foot.

The superlative operatic basso Ferruccio Furlanetto is not singing opera, but Schubert and Rachmaninov. Nothing wrong with that, but it does not augment an opera program.

Despite his cover picture in costume in the season brochure, Jonas Kaufmann is NOT singing in staged opera but in three concert performances of Parsifal, Wagner's Holy Grail opera. Yes, finally Sydney gets some Wagner. Yay! This opera is such a major sing that another couple of imports for major roles might have been appropriate in my view. Lets hope the local artists are able to rise to the occasion and create a vocally balanced evening in the Concert Hall.

But most of the season is re-runs: Madama Butterfly (Capitol Theatre, 12 performances), La Boheme (20 performances), La Traviata (22 performances), Tosca (13 performances) and Carmen on the harbour (yet again, 24 performances). No wonder so many subscribers have let their seats lapse with such wonderful operas becoming like fast food.

But there are three rarities to look forward to in King Roger, a Polish opera as well as the first outing of Two Weddings, One Bride (a compilation opera staring David Lewis, Julie Lea Goodwin and Geraldine Turner). The latter is conducted by the composer/arranger Robert Greene. Thirdly, Thaïs is to be performed in the Town Hall with Nicole Car in a single performance.

I note Emma Matthews is expected to sing Violetta on 21, 23 and 25 March or three times in five days - is that wise for such a big role?

Verdi's Manzoni Requiem on Aug 10 in the Concert Hall has an as yet unnamed soprano singing with Nikolic, Torre and Roberto Scandiuzzi conducted by Renato Palumbo. This superb work should not be missed and should perhaps have had two airings. The opera twins, Cav and Pag make up the Sydney leg (9 performances with Torre and Carbo doing death-defying double roles three nights in five!!) - and add 6 performances of ‘Aida on the Beach’ in Coolangatta and you have the whole sorry shambles of what used to be a great opera company. A subscription used to be a guarantee of the best seats and lowest prices but now the company regularly issues Promo Codes for on-line discounts as well as discounts from Fish Records.


Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

10 July, 2016

Roberto Devereux in the cinema. Donizetti at his best!

MetOpera HD Cinema broadcast of Roberto Devereux finally comes to Australia.  This matinee was performed on Saturday 16th April and beamed live to America and Europe.  Australasian audiences had to wait until the first weekend in July.  DVD not released yet. 
Sondra Radvanovsky is incomparable as Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux.  This is her third Donizetti English queen after Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda.  American tenor Matthew Polenzani sang the title role stylishly.  He cuts a dashing figure and emotes the conflicting feelings of love to anger and regret, facing death at the end with resolution - and another glorious aria.  Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is at the peak of his vocal and dramatic powers as the Duke of Nottingham.  As Sarah, his duchess, we heard Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca.  All were top class in this enormous bel canto drama directed by Sir David McVicar. 
The open stage was a formal setting with sliding façade on two levels with courtiers watching all the proceedings from the sides on two levels.  Between the Tower of London and Henry VIIIs country palace “Nonesuch” (now long levelled), scene changes were seamless.  
In the cinema one has the opportunity to see much closer than in the theatre.  This obvious observation makes for a very different experience with more details of faces, costumes, wigs, etc than even front row seats.  This benefit may also be a draw-back in some cases, showing up imperfections, most notably sweating and beard/wig lines.  It was indeed a privilege for me to be able to experience the same performance in the theatre and then in the cinema for comparison. 
Another benefit of the cinema version is that we can meet the cast in the intermission.  Deborah Voigt interviewed Ms Radvanovsky about her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth who was 69 years of age at the time of the opera.  She was known to have skin problems and a limp from hip trouble, each of which featured in a distinct tremor, thinned hair and thick white make-up.  Each of the other main 3 principals also gave some interesting commentary (and each had a few words for the folks back home in their native tongues). 
After a full blooded overture including God save the Queen the drama opens with a sad and reflective duchess pondering her loveless marriage and illicit longings for Devereux.  Elina Garanca has some ravishing music to sing both alone and in numerous duets.  The range required is extraordinary from high coloratura down to low chest voice.  She is very beautiful and acts with a natural conviction using every aspect of facial expression, body language and more. 
The story revolves around the queen refusing to charge Devereux with treason for lack of hard evidence despite parliament demanding his execution.  The queen demands he reveal any other love but hers which he denies.  Otello has its handkerchief, Tosca the fan, but this opera has a blue scarf with gold thread embroidered by the duchess for Devereux and with which he is caught when arrested on order of the parliament.  It is this scarf which also reveals her extra-marital affections to her husband who then prevents his wife delivering Devereuxs reprieve.  As with Wagner, there is a ring which causes a whole lot of trouble.  Its late delivery causes the untimely beheading of Devereux, revealed by a cannon blast, introducing the queens denouement in Ms Radvanovskys spectacular final scene. 
The other three singers all have major vocal parts as well but it is Ms Radvanovsky who has the most taxing and extensive role.  Her finales of both halves (acts 1 and 2 were merged together) are staggering displays equal to any mad scene or other soprano endurance feat in all opera to my experience.  And she acquits them with superb aplomb - high notes, low notes, legato and ornamented vocal lines. 
There were at least three numbers which were reminiscent of Lucrezia Borgia which Donizetti wrote 5 years earlier.  He wrote (or re-wrote) almost 100 operas between 1816 and 1844.  For people who like to know about high notes, Ms Radvanovsky hit a D natural for her final note of the opera.  Ms Garanca used three octaves with phenomenal effortlessness from near baritone to high soprano.  Mr Polenzani sang a sustained high D flat in his final aria.  Mr Kwiecien just sang brilliantly all night and did not have to prove himself with any A naturals, trills, etcetera. 
The huge Met orchestra was exemplary under Maestro Maurizio Benini.  And as usual the Met chorus was splendid, most of them playing the onlookers in the "play within the play" (as the commentator called it). 
This was one of the best opera performances I have seen and I consider myself lucky to have seen it twice in New York and then again here in Sydney on the big silver screen.  Indeed, there was palpable excitement in the cinema - the Sydney audience spontaneously applauded at numerous high points as well as at the end.  The curtain calls were also most moving (see below for YouTube clip of same).  
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
The next HD Live Met Opera in the series is Elektra with Nina Stemme and not to be missed by Richard Strauss fans. 
Pearlfishers duet with Polenzani and Kwiecien:
The penultimate duet is on YouTube:  

03 May, 2016

Soprano Greta Bradman sings in Bowral. Piano/'cello concert this Friday at St Jude's.

Greta Bradman, soprano recital at St Judes Church, Bowral Sunday 1/5/16
Dear Colleagues,
This was a welcomed return of the Bradman name and talents to Bowral in an auspicious program of some of the most challenging operatic repertoire with piano and organ bonus items from accompanist Rhys Boak.  We also had some lighter works: Edelweiss, When you Wish upon a Star, It is Always a Rainbow Day (by the Don) and My Hero from The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus. 
I would have been satisfied with just one of the following: Casta diva from Norma (with cabaletta); Caro nome from Rigoletto; Damor sullali rosee (without cabaletta) from Il Trovatore; Queen of Nights second act aria; I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls, Il est doux, il est bon (Herodiade).  But we got the lot in a single long bracket of glorious vocalism. 
Ms Bradman spoke about each work, placing it in context.  She seemed relaxed and comfortable with the audience and her accompanist, giving some local anecdotes and expressing her gratitude at the support she has been given. 
Ms Bradman has a beautiful and well trained voice, reaching from a low to high register with ease and an even timbre throughout the octaves.  Her breath control is well schooled and her tempi well chosen.  She has a fine natural sounding extended trill and other ornaments.  The low range is full chested while frequent high notes in the Mozart were accurate and full volume.  At times there was a steeliness to the voice which regularly gave way to her natural warm velvet tone. 
I measure singers by my own degree of goose flesh and there was plenty on this Autumn Sunday afternoon.  I just got the first thrill reading the program which contained some of my all-time favourite pieces (Casta diva was second on the long list). 
The church was full but it still suffers from the Anglican problem of single doors and takes half an hour or more to fill or empty.  I think it is a product of the vicars of old wanting to shake the hand of every single congregant so none could by-pass the official party.  The new section (also entered by a single narrow doorway) is very comfortable where drinks were served and Ms Bradman mingled with the hoi polloi.  She looked beautiful in a long silky dress with fallen shoulder straps. 
I felt privileged to be hearing this new talent on the scene and hope that one day we may hear her on the stage in a full opera.  She seems to have all the necessary attributes vocally, yet an opera singer needs much more in what must be one of the most difficult careers. 
We were told by the Rector that this Friday famous pianist Katherine Selby is having a concert with cello -  Highly recommended. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

30 April, 2016

Abduction from the Seraglio at the Met - season opening success.

Seraglio gala ends Andrew Byrne's Met marathon. Friday 22 April 2016
This Met Abduction from the Seraglio was splendid in every way.  Osmin was the old hand as Hans-Peter Konig with both vocal powers and comic talents to carry off this hilarious and contrasting role.  His younger four Christian protagonists show their amazing metal starting with Paul Appleby whose very first love-loon aria contained some ‘John McCormack’ breaths and cantabile legato singing. 
Ms Shagimuratova shone as Konstanze with two of the most difficult arias exquisitely executed.  Equally impressive was Kathleen Kim as Blondchen who slipped in some almost unbelievable high notes into her already high tessitura.  Brenton Ryan had a debut success as Pedrillo. 
James Levine received a rapturous ovation as his orchestra and the Met chorus did their 'thing' as professionally as ever.  The maestro is wheel-chair bound and is thus installed on the podium well before the start.  Rather than walking on he manoeuvres the motorised chair to 180 degrees and is spot-lit, same in the ‘curtain’ calls.  His retirement from the top job was announced recently but he will still guest-conduct a number of operas next season. 

The opera might better be called The Clemenza di Pasha (played by actor Matthias von Stegmann).  After two acts of hilarity we have a philosophical and instructive lesson for the meddlesome  Europeans.  The 1978 John Dexter production is a colourful cardboard cut-out stylised eastern palace - but it works.  
I have seen some spectacular opera at the Met during April including two performances of Roberto Devereux and a mind-numbing Elektra.  More details if anyone is interested ... Also, very grateful for the welcome in this phenomenal city.  Back to reality in Sydney for the month of May. 
Regards, Andrew Byrne .. 

27 April, 2016

Roberto Devereux divine in New York.

Sondra Radvanovsky shines as Queen Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux at the Met.  This is her third Donizetti queen after Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda.  Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien had been sick and cancelled during the week but was back for the HD on Saturday matinee (I went twice!).  Along with Ms Radvanovsky from Illinois, we heard Latvian mezzo Elena Garanca as Sarah and American tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role.  This opera promised much but delivered even beyond ones wildest expectations! 
The production by David McVicar used a formal setting with sliding façade on two levels with courtiers watching all the proceedings from above.  Between the Tower of London and Henry VIII’s country palace “Nonesuch” scene changes were seamless.  
My words must fail to fully describe the feeling in the house on those nights.  All I can compare it with is the old Sutherland or Pavarotti nights.  Electricity in the air.  Expectation and just damn dramatic delivery from all present demonstrating all the best qualities of good opera.  It was tough to determine who exactly was the star.  The overture starts with God save our gracious queen which was more than atmospheric (nobody stood up!).  Under Maestro Maurizio Benini the Met orchestra also shone bright. 
Ms Garanca was the surprise for me as she undertook the challenging if somewhat unrewarding role of the amorous rival Sarah.  At times I wondered if she had swapped her score for the coloratura soprano as she soared with elegant legato singing over an enormous range including some very high notes.  Mr Polenzani has progressed and developed over many years, as Edgardo and Alfredo up to his current title role which is extremely well acquitted. 
Ms Radvanovsky puts in the most phenomenal vocal and dramatic performance we have seen in a very long time.  Even in the first of three acts (two were put together) she had a tour-de-force equal to anything else in the repertoire (and reminiscent of the finale of Lucrezia Borgia).  After the almost instantaneous standing ovation at the end our soprano seemed visibly shocked, looking behind herself wondering who everybody was applauding.  Sutherland sometimes did something similar in curtain calls: are you all applauding little-old-me?  At other times we received a respectful but regal look, showing no emotion whatever.  At a certain point Ms Radvanovsky kissed her hand and pressed it to the stage floor. 
The curtain calls were more like football than opera.  An enthusiast has put a video of the applause onto YouTube!  ( ).   The penultimate duet is on YouTube:  Other excerpts c/o Met Opera:  

While the rest of the world saw it live that Saturday, Australians will find it worth a visit to the cinema in July.  This obscure but wonderful opera may turn out to be one of the Mets most popular outreach HD broadcasts to date.  Unlike most operas in recent years, the house was completely sold out for these performances. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

29 March, 2016

Sydney Harbour Turandot

Turandot - Puccini - Opera on Sydney Harbour Thurs 24 March 2016 7.30pm
Dear Colleagues,
For the fifth year in a row the opera company has put on an open-air extravaganza at Mrs Macquaries Chair, a narrow native peninsula which juts out into Sydney Harbour just east of the opera house and in full view of the entire city, sunset and subsequent stars (and full moon rise on cue at 7.30pm).  Even mini-golf could become interesting in such a setting (each to their own!).  Dining before the opera on the artificial parapet with the setting sun and harbour backdrop was all quite magical.  The food was excellent but would not be found in Cheap-eats. 
The pontoon opera is not real opera because it is amplified.  However, one has to appreciate the spectacle, ambiance and fun of the fair.  And there was plenty of fun in this opening night event in addition to the opera.  I confess mixed feelings about the taking public foreshore property for this very elite purpose and about the Hollywoodisation of opera.  The latter especially as we were in full view of the Opera House where fine opera still happens from time to time, regardless of the weather. 
On the Olympic sized pontoon stage was an enormous sculpted dragons head on the left with stylised body and tail across to the right behind a tall silver tower looking something like a monster Darlek from Doctor Who.  The latter was suitably fenestrated for appearances and descent of the Ice Princess and ascent of the lovers in the finale. 
The opera opens with a suspended Mandarin town crier reminding the crowds of the ancient law regarding would-be suitors of Turandot.  Mr Dubinski sang like he always sings, somewhat less than perfect.  At times he did not even seem to sing the notes Puccini carefully chose for him.  David Lewis sang well as Emperor, appearing on a broad suspended chaise with the Writ of the Riddles as his painful duty for the beautiful princesss betrothal. 
All of the other singers were also top-class.  As slave girl, Liu, the secondary soprano role can up-stage the title role and we were not disappointed with either.  The very expensive glossy souvenir program does not inform us who was actually singing since there were doubles for the major roles.  Because of early Easter the opera was performed on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, etc, keeping us guessing about the principals identities.  As in the opera house, there should have been a cast list at the very least. 
Ping, Pang and Pong were perfectly cast as the chattering public servants.  John Longmuir, Benjamin Rasheed and Luke Gabbedy sang and acted their routines with style and flair.  And THEY are to sing EVERY night until 24th April according to the program (Mondays excluded). 
The chorus sang and acted brilliantly and I presume body microphones and careful mixing yielded the satisfying auditory production, balanced with the Neptunian orchestra under baton of underworld Maestro Brian Castles-Onion.  At least they got to parade centre-stage in the curtain calls. 
Careful trawling on the companys web-site finds that opening-night Turandot was performed by Serbian super-soprano Dragana Radakovic, Liu by Hyeseoung Kwon and Calaf by Riccardo Massi.  They were all incomparable in my view.  This cast is to sing again on Sunday 27th and Tuesday 29th April.  Veteran Kiwi bass Conal Coad plays blind Timur, king without a kingdom. 
Nessun dorma is the great tenor showpiece everyone waits for and it did not disappoint, Mr Massi singing a fine aria and holding a long penultimate note to enormous ovation.  And then fireworks were released just in case anyone was still asleep (Nessun dorma means no-one sleeps).  After the clapping we had a reprise of several bars so the through-written third act could continue.  Puccini never intended the final word, vincero to be sung as it is now (the first person plural is one exception to the usual Italian rule of emphasis to be placed on the second last vowel). 
For these operas the company uses one intermission, thus pushing acts together with a few cuts.  Three short acts as Puccini wrote would allow more mingling, more food and another drink in two intermissions.  It would also allow the singers and orchestra two proper breaks in a very full evening. 
Tickets range from $70 to $330 with options for supper, drinks and glossy program.  There are no bad seats although I would advise avoiding the front 4 rows.  Take binoculars if you want to see the expressions on the singers faces. 
Written by Andrew Byrne ..
G.Rossini, Semiramide Overture (for 8 pianos)

15 February, 2016

Luisa Miller - Verdi - Sydney Opera House Thursday 11 Feb 2016

Dear Colleagues,

Luisa Miller in Sydney is vocally magnificent and is a MUST-SEE show for the season.  Get a ticket quickly as there are only seven performances in all.  This Verdi gem came just before Rigoletto - and it shows some of the same father - daughter interactions, combined with a parallel father - son relationship causing insoluble tensions only resolved by death (poisoning this time - and only after a lot of magnificent singing). 

Nicole Car has all that it takes for this taxing dramatic and vocal role.  I cannot understand why she appears in three negligees when everyone else is in 20th century attire.  The reason she has to spend so much time on the ground is that there are no props on stage apart from wire chairs, mostly on their sides.  The protagonists’ castles have no couches, no tables, no doors, windows, stairs or fireplaces … just bare black ramped stage.  No problem, we can imagine all of the above … but why then did we need to see an inane slow-motion roller-coaster during the overture, replete with chorus slowly encircling the stage with out-sized candles?  Luna Park did better 50 years ago.  Do they really think that we need something extraneous to keep us awake during what might be Verdi’s best overture?  Any activity on stage necessarily detracts from what the composer wanted and what his audience deserves. 

The same rote chorus manoeuvre happened during the opera’s most famous aria, partially obscuring Mr Torre as he sang ‘Quando le sere al placido’ to enormous and well deserved applause.  In this long tenor scene Mr Torre did not quite pace himself and ran short on voice just before the end - a small failing considering the feat … and for the final scenes the voice returned intact and full heft. 

One wonders if the artistic contributors actually like opera … they certainly don’t understand it from this outing to my mind.  And they seem to have collaborated with tobacco companies, and distractingly so.  The co-production from Lausanne originally planned to have the monochrome epoxy Tussaud’s domestic scene swung up 90 degrees around to be at the rear of the stage but in Sydney it ends up high above it.  It is so badly designed that (if it mattered) half the audience could not see a cream gentlemen and top-hat BEHIND the huge cream fire place, whatever significance that may have had.  But they do make fine watches in Switzerland. 

Luisa’s father is played by Slovak baritone Mr Dalibor Jenis who is possessed of a large and expressive voice and dramatic skills to boot.  We heard his Onegin two years ago and I hope we will be hearing more of him in the future, such is the rare beauty of his voice and his ability to nail an exciting high note when required. 

Almost uniquely, this opera calls for two basses, local Daniel Sumegi as ‘Wurm’ and American Raymond Aceto as Count Walter.  They both need to portray profound evil as each has dark secrets which are ably conveyed in the wonderful Verdi score.  Both sang with skill and conviction and their famous duet was stunning. 

The orchestra under Andrea Licata was responsive and tireless.  The solo clarinettist was not credited in the program hand-out despite being featured prominently in the opera, starting with the overture. 

Both Rigoletto and Luisa Miller contain vocal and dramatic experiments and it is self evident that the former were more successful than the latter.  Some of the vocal lines in Luisa Miller are more acrobatic than elegant with staccato and stepping progressions.  Yet we have a rare opera with an excellent cast in our distant opera world which is indeed a privilege and an opportunity for any opera lover.  Tickets from $44 to $300 nobody should miss out but it is selling fast. 

18 January, 2016

The Pearlfishers, Georges Bizet, at the Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House - The Pearlfishers, Georges Bizet

Opening Friday 15th January 2016

This new production of The Pearlfishers is marvellous - but it is not novel. What is novel is to hear four superb voices and a large, schooled chorus on this stage. Guillaume Tourniaire also did a novel reading of the score, taking some early parts particularly slowly as well as some later chorus parts at a cracking pace.

Samuel Johnsons definition of opera being exotic and irrational was certainly true of this odd interpretation where all three male Ceylonese protagonists are attired in European clothing. The chorus and extras wear pseudo native outfits or almost nothing at all. I make a point of never reading production notes as I dont want to read excuses as to why the interpreters have ignored the libretto. The only thing new for me was the old Brahmin priest Nourabad being bribed successively, amusing and sadly a point considering the sad position some in the clergy have found themselves in recent years (was it ever thus?). Otherwise this production had the essentials of temple, coastline, beach and ocean - but the representation of the sea looked more like blue tinsel gelato than any marine scene Ive ever seen.

Young tenor Pavol Breslik from Bratislava was very fine, although not completely suited to Nadir which really requires that specialist French tenor style with upper extension. For the last strains of Je crois entrendre encore he simply stopped singing - a bizarre act but probably better than cracking on a high note (many a tenor has used falsetto here and I have heard at least one great tenor recording doing the same non-ending as here). [I have since learned that this was the way Bizet wrote the aria and the familiar high ending was interpolated by others.] We were told that Mr Breslik had sung Lensky (Onegin) and Edgardo (Lucia) on successive nights in Munich recently (as one does). I call it stupid.

But the star of the night was Leila played by beautiful Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina. She performed flawlessly with a stage presence and forte singing plus all the extras trills, extended breath control and amazing, strong high notes, all accurate and tasteful. Her Comme autrefois was magnificent. She also received a strong and well deserved acclaim at the end. In contrast to the Russian singers meteoric CV, the managements choice for second cast soprano is said to be embarking on a promising and exciting operatic career and this would appear to be her first role in an opera house. One wishes her luck but Ms Siurina will be a hard act to follow and the show goes on for 15 performances over 2 months, most seats yet to sell according to the web site.

Zurga was played by Jose Carbo who was in big voice and drama, as we have come to expect. He was given a ludicrous long beard as well as a ridiculous wobbly woven crown yet his artistry shone through. Daniel Sumegi sang the rather thankless role of Nourabad with power and poise (even though he was made to look more like a gangster than a Brahmin priest).

Two questions arise: one why this opera is SO popular in Sydney and two, why it is so rarely performed elsewhere. It may be that an early radio broadcast by the ABC around 1965 seeded this opera for a generation of Australian opera lovers. We heard Pearlfishers all through the 1980s and 90s then in 2000, 2003, 2008 and 2012.

This month the Metropolitan Opera in New York breaks a century long drought for The Pearlfishers with a telecast production including Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien. The last at the Met was with Caruso and DeLuca in 1916, in Italian. More Australians may see The Pearlfishers in the cinema than in the theatre as a result of this bad timing. It is hard to imagine a lot of opera fans desperate to hear this opera a second time so soon. And foreign visitors may just think the opera is a canard in the canon rather than the true operatic jewel that it is (IMO).

There seemed to be more music including an extra chorus and a glorious love-to-the-gallows duet just near the end which I don't recall ever hearing before. They may have been cut-down versions we heard in the past. There was no auto-da-fe this time Im pleased to say, just some off-stage glints and hints of fire and brimstone. There was no second intermission in this outing and so with the two scenes in the third act we had two long and awkward pauses in the theatre. This will not suit everyone, most important, the composer wanted his singers to have a break, not to mention the orchestra, bar sales, audience DVT risk (economy class syndrome), etc. But it is a trade-mark of this management to compress their operas, ignoring the untold if unmeasured benefits of the operatic intermission (they have always been terrified of orchestra overtime payments). Some ticket-holders, I am told, only attend because of the intervals!

Altogether an excellent performance but in a long line of impressarial goofs on this companys way to possible insolvency sad to say. According to a recent press article the company needed to borrow twice on the following years funding to pay the bills.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land on which I walk and work, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to elders both past and present.