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01 August, 2017

Thaïs by Massenet – Concert performance at the Sydney Town Hall.

Thaïs by Massenet – Concert performance at the Sydney Town Hall.  Saturday 22nd July 2017. 
The Wiki page on this work states that the title role “is notoriously difficult to sing and is reserved for only the most gifted of performers. Modern interpreters have included Carol Neblett, Anna Moffo, Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price, Renée Fleming, and Elizabeth Futral.”  Now that Renee Fleming has announced her retirement from the opera stage one wondered from the publicity whether Nicole Car might be the world’s new Thaïs.  On Saturday’s performance there is little chance of this, despite a creditable performance overall.  One wonders at her advisors, agent and the opera company management with a talented singer so early in her career.  Furthermore, to sing a rehearsal then two performances within just a few days is something Renee Fleming has probably never done. 
The Sydney audience has been deprived of a winter opera season for the first time in 60 years due to incompetence of management.  Despite long announced repairs to the opera stage no viable replacement venue or venues were organised early enough causing cancellation of the main season.  Instead we have a few piecemeal efforts each of which could as easily have been mounted by the ABC or the private sector.  I believe the entire opera company board should be sacked and an administrator appointed.  An orchestra without a season, chorus sent home, principal singers unemployed and the public denied mainstream opera in the city of the world’s most recognisable opera house! 
Back to the performance which had many fine aspects, most notably an enlarged opera orchestra filling the enormous stage of the Town Hall under the skilled baton of Maestro Guillaume Tourniaire.  Massenet was at his most innovative and creative in his score for Thaïs, notably in the ‘Meditation’ without which the opera would probably be almost unknown.  Jun Yi Ma, orchestra leader and first violin played exquisitely in what became a concerto with humming chorus in the full operatic version.  So, in his genius, Massenet wrote one of the most accessible and beautiful pieces within an opera which can only be performed by a soprano with the rare talents of American Sibyl Sanderson (d. 1903) for whom he also wrote Esclamonde (whose only studio recording is by Joan Sutherland, such are its vocal demands).   The score also evokes every sentiment from morning riverside noises to ecstatic rhythmics, even one moment which sounds to me like a busy office with a telephone ringing! 
On her performance on Saturday night, it would appear that Ms Nicole Car has been ill-advised to take on this unique and challenging role, despite a stunning recent recording of the ‘mirror’ aria.  In contrast to her recording, Ms Car curtailed the terminal high note, losing Massenet’s intention.  This was not the only clipped high note and furthermore, she appeared uncomfortable in two high passages in the final duet.  A musical colleague mentioned ‘goldfishing’, a term I was not familiar with, possibly in relation to two quite low notes.  Of course opera is much more than high notes and low notes, yet when they are required an audience deserves to hear them.  Ms Car has a regal presence on stage, a pleasing vocal delivery with poise, accuracy and beauty. 
Company regular Richard Anderson as Palemon started proceedings with his elegant basso voice and even delivery.  French Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, who is Nichole Car’s partner in real life and father of their young baby, sang the enormous role of Athanael with great aplomb.  He pushed the vocal limits without strain or inelegance, raising goose bumps in my case. 
Rich city-slicker and Thaïs’ current lover Nicias was performed by excellent company tenor Simon Kim.  As with the others, he sang accurately and with obvious knowledge of what he was singing.   Other supporting cast were also excellent along with male and female chorus situated behind the orchestra, next to the enormous pipe organ (which sadly was not used). 
The story of Massenet’s Egyptian masterpiece finds us in seamy and steamy Alexandria in the early Christian era where Athanael is trying to convince the object of his attention, Thaïs, to convert to a monastic life from her life of depravity as a follower of Venus, ensuring eternal life.  Only by the third act does he realise that he is physically attracted to Thaïs and by then she is dying.  He renounces God, Jesus and the scriptures in favour of the flesh … all too late, unfortunately.  But this IS opera! 
So I feel on the one hand that we were fortunate to hear this rare work but uncomfortable that our lead lady was misled to tackle such a role at this time. 
As a venue the Sydney Town Hall leaves much to be desired.  Little has changed since Nellie Melba sang here.  The single narrow entry (for security reasons I understand) led to a queue before the performance going most of the way down Druitt Street almost to Kent Street.  Disabled patrons were permitted to enter by the basement. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
Please let me know if you no longer wish to receive these opera notes: ‘personal only’ in subject line would suffice as I’ve no desire to spam anyone.  Have a great day. 
Thais Finale with Fleming and Hampson:
‘Mirror, mirror’ aria:

10 June, 2017

Further notes on the 50th Anniversary Metropolitan Opera Gala 7th May 2017.

There were 28 discrete pieces (taking Boheme Act I as three, Dmitry one, overture one, Aida Triumphal March as one, etc.  [see below for my notes on the night]
The seats cost either $1966 or $950 with standing room $50 on the day.   And there were sporadic single seats available on the internet Met site in the days leading up to the event.  The marketing therefore was near perfect as a fund raiser as well as a celebration for those prepared to take a financial hit (and most was tax-deductible for US residents). 
I note it is actually 51 years since the current opera house’s first performance (see Wiki page documenting first performance (La Fanciulla del West) for students was 11th April 1966 with formal opening with Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra on 16 September 1966 which is 50 years ago last September.  But hell, any time is a good time for a party, so party they/we did.  It may have been the finest line-up of opera talent in a very long time.
Conspicuous by their absence were: Jonas Kaufmann (long booked for Cavaradossi in Vienna); Villazon (no explanation); Florez (doctor’s certificate); Mr Furlanetto (?).
These are the names who were advertised to be singing on the night: Piotr Beczała, Ben Bliss, Stephanie Blythe, Javier Camarena, Diana Damrau, David Daniels, Joyce DiDonato, Plácido Domingo, Michael Fabiano, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Flórez, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Elīna Garanča, Susan Graham, Vittorio Grigolo, Mariusz Kwiecien, Isabel Leonard, Željko Lučić, Amanda Majeski (??), Angela Meade, James Morris, Anna Netrebko, Kristine Opolais, Eric Owens, René Pape, Matthew Polenzani, Rolando Villazón, Michael Volle, Pretty Yende and Sonya Yoncheva.  But we need to add the surprise of the night: Dmitry Hvorotovsky. 
Despite high ticket prices and few 'complimentary' seats (eg. Richard Bonynge and a few other first season participants) this should have been one of the most opera-savvy audiences imaginable.  Nevertheless, inexplicably there was still premature applause in the middle of Lady Macbeth’s first act scena with Anna Netrebko as well as in La Traviata Act I finale with Ms Damrau (and Mr Polenzani off-stage – who BTW omitted the high option in his one-liners). 
Although there were no obvious cameras in the hall to my surprise the Met released the clips below on YouTube a few days after the event.  These, I would estimate, comprise no more than 25% of the concert for all to enjoy.  None was the full item and some ended abruptly (such as 'Nemico della patria').  It is a mystery to me why the concert was not filmed on HD video for future use, not to mention for historical purposes.  This was like 30 singing lessons.  I have since heard from an insider that a documentary was made about the entire process leading up to this gigantic concert.  I was keen to know who got the main dressing-room(s)! 

Comments by Andrew Byrne, Sydney drug doctor. 

Below are some links I found on searching YouTube:
Si, mi chiamano Mimi (Sonya Yoncheva):
O soave fanciulla (Calleja; Yoncheva):
Quando le sere al placido (Piotr Beczala):
Cortigiani vil razza dannata (Hvorostovsky):
Qual voluttà trascorrere (Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, Günther Groissböck)
Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix (Elīna Garanča):
Bel raggio lusinghier (Joyce DiDonato):
Aida triumphal march (Gala Finale with Latonia Moore; Dolores Zajick and many more):
Met Gala curtain calls (one by one then grand finale with conductors and tutti:
Nemico della patria.   (just audio, no video from NPR)

13 May, 2017

Andrew Byrne's take on Met Gala - "and no-one's anybody!"

Sensational Met Opera 50 Year Anniversary concert.  6pm Sunday 7th May 2017
Dear Readers, 
There was electricity in the air before this night of nights – some of the singers were still in the foyers before the concert, mingling with patrons, donors and invited guests.  There was a red carpet and photographers.  The program was secret but 33 of the Met’s named singers would be giving their own, along with the chorus, orchestra and three conductors for the home crowd in Manhattan.  There were lots of tuxedoes and women’s fashions were very much on show. 
Having announced her retirement from the opera stage, Renee Fleming would have to be the sentimental favourite while old-timers’ prizes went to James Morris and Placido Domingo.  Morris sang the Grand Inquisitor as well as Ramfis in the Triumphal March.  There was no need for any allowances for age as both men held their own with others half their age.  I wondered that Charles Anthony was not there.  
The carefully chosen operatic excerpts were interspersed with brief interviews and old newsreels related to the Lincoln Center.  In B&W footage we saw President Eisenhower turn the first sod for construction; Leonard Bernstein conducted an open-air ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus on the building site; we heard a recent interview with 90 year old Leontyne Price whose regal photograph as Cleopatra’s adorns Met programs during May.  We learned how an accidental paint spill on the foyer's plans indirectly caused the design for the unique ‘galaxy’ light fittings, contrary to the wishes of Rudolf Bing and management who had wanted traditional chandeliers.  In another clip Mr Chagall asked for his murals to be lowered (!).  Too late!! 
The stage setting for each item was a re-creation using projections onto moving curtains, scrims and giant flats sliding in from the wings.  The manner by which this was done was like rapid painting with an invisible brush causing columns, walls, arches, wall-paper, etc to appear before our eyes - each time to finally reveal a familiar Met scena.  Most impressive for me was the classic Act I Boheme attic garret, doors, balcony, chimneys, roofs of Paris, etc, all a projected illusion apart from a small raised platform, student table and two chairs from which Ms Yoncheva and Mr Calleja performed.  It was trompe l’oeil after a fashion.  Some settings even got their own applause such as for Tosca (interiors of Palazzo Farnese), Aida (Nile colossi, etc) and Boris Godunov (gilt arched chambers).  There were representations of many Met production scenes for the evening, put together brilliantly by Julian Crouch.  Costumes were either original from the production or tasteful gowns, etc. 
In the middle of the second half there was a projected bio of James Levine from his student years right through his very long association with The Metropolitan Opera.  Then the spotlights moved to the podium where Maestro himself appeared in his chair, waving to an adoring crowd.  “Jimmy” then conducted the remainder of the concert. 
I mention the evening’s wonderful selections in no particular order … each item could have been a perfect music lesson.  Inevitably there were some crowd-pleasers: Un bel di (Anna Netrebko); E lucevan le stelle (Vittorio Grigolo); Vissi d'arte (Kristine Opelais); Sempre libera (Diana Damrau); Che gelida manina, Mi chiamano Mimi, O suave fanciulla, (Joseph Calleja, Sonya Yoncheva). 
Mozart: Papagano's aria (Michael Volle); Porgi amor (Renee Fleming); Count's Aria Nozze di Figaro (Volle);
And from left field: Overture from West Side Story (started proceedings); Chorus from Antony and Cleopatra (Samuel Barber’s opera was commissioned to open the Met); Bess, you is my woman now (Eric Owens, Pretty Yende); The Tempest (by Ades) love scene (Isobel Leonard, Ben Bliss with Dwayne Croft); Julius Caesar 'Sempre piangero' (David Daniels, Stephanie Blythe). 
For the serious consumer: Nemico della patria (Domingo – the French election result had just been announced); Iago's credo (Zeljko Lucic); Leve-toi soleil (Grigolo standing in for Florez); Mon coeur s'ouvre (Elena Garanca as Dalila); Guests' Entrance, Tannhauser (with trumpets on stage); Quando le sere al placido (Piotr Beczala); Don Carlo: Grand Inquisitor's scene with Phillip V (Groissbock / Morris).  
For the connoisseur: Boris's Mad Scene (Rene Pape); Troyens duet (Susan Graham, Matthew Polenzani); Thais duet with Fleming and Domingo; Charlotte’s aria from Werther (DiDonato).  
For the Guinness record book: Bel raggio lusinghier (Joyce DiDonato); Ah mes amis (Javier Camarena) with 9 high C’s!  All pitch perfect, alternating staccato and sustained – and all with ease and a Mexican smile!!  Lady Macbeth’s scene, Act I (Netrebko in amazing form). 
Just for fun: Don Pasquale duet (Pretty Yende, Mariusz Kwiecien); Triumphal March, Aida with full chorus (but no final 'Mexican' E flat as we heard on Sydney Harbour last year with the same wonderful soprano, Latonia Moore). 
About 7pm to our great surprise Mr Gelb announced that ‘a very brave Dimitry Hvorostovsky’ would sing Cortigiani vil razza – which he did, brilliantly.  The popular baritone received a standing ovation even before he opened his mouth – still recovering after brain surgery.  He seemed delighted with the reception, even shedding a tear as did many in the audience I suspect.  I noted many Russian accents in the foyers during the single intermission. 
Just after the Thais excerpt the orchestra started playing a violin obligato which I thought momentarily to be the Meditation.  It was actually the final scene of I Lombardi in which the violin features as a solo instrument just as the ‘cello does in I Masnadieri.  It is hard to know if Verdi was simply showing off his orchestral skills or showcasing a particular instrumentalist, or both.  Yet in this scene the melding of the strings, vocal and dramatic lines indeed shows his unique genius and was highly appropriate to show it off again.  Like numerous items, it heralds the newly announced season for 2017/8.  Here we heard Michael Fabiano, Angela Mead and Gunther Groissbock sing the trio.  The fiddle was played by David Chan with great virtuosity, showing off the most difficult manoeuvres of that instrument.  I was sorry Mr Fabiano did not sing La mia letizia infondere from Act I … this was one of Pavarotti’s favourite show pieces.  I heard Luciano Pavarotti, Lauren Flanagan and Samuel Ramey in this scene on this stage many years ago, reminding me that I have been attending this house for half of its life (since 1992). 
The quality of the singing goes without saying.  Each singer put their heart and soul into each piece and adrenalin levels were high, despite most performing familiar pieces.  Just as people were starting to seriously look at their watches near 11pm we had the selection from Aida and it was all over, barring the huge curtain calls which were also very emotional.  I pinched myself yet again.  What can one say?!  “Thank you”, say I. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

Highlights from the Met in New York and early cherry blossoms!

Opera notes from New York – April/May 2017
A visit to the New York Met Opera is always a great pleasure as the season winds down until mid-May when the ballet season begins.  Pre-booking seats enabled us to see the wonderful Sonja Frisell Aida, Rigoletto set in a casino, Flying Dutchman, Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni and Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. 
How to pick a favourite with so many stars, young and old in each of these high quality productions at the Met? 
The sentimental favourite must be Renee Fleming who is doing her last Marschallin (and possibly her last opera) in a new Rosenkavalier production by Robert Carsen, sets by Paul Steinberg, updated to 1911 Vienna.  This was one of the most profound and enjoyable operas I have attended … and it was the first time the opera really ‘clicked’ for me.  It is an amusing epic romance from teenage flirtations to deviant adult mores and then painful but necessary separations to allow new ‘normal’ liaisons.  There were elegant conventions broken as well as avuncular buffoonery.  Matthew Polenzani sang the Italian tenor to a tee (as Pavarotti did 45 years ago in the previous production’s premiere).  Elena Garanca not only sings brilliantly but plays her gender-bender role with boyish charm as well as feigned feminine awkwardness.  Sofie is played by Erin Morley with great aplomb.  Baron Ochs was played by Günther Groissböck and the opera conducted by Sebastian Weigle. 
Anna Netrebko is Tatiana to Peter Mattei’s Eugene Onegin.  Dmitry Hvorotovsky is still getting over brain surgery.  Alexie Dolgov sang a most satisfactory Lensky. 
Don Giovanni had a dream cast headed by Mariusz Kwecien and Erwin Schott, conducted by Placido Domingo.  Angela Mead sang Donna Anna who has some amazing vocal fireworks towards the end.  Matthew Polenzani was a great Don Ottavio, lily-livered though he is in the story.  Both Dalla sua pace and Il mio tesoro were beautifully sung. 
A magnificent Flying Dutchman is conducted by the new Met musical director French Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin who seems extremely popular with audience and performers alike.  Aptly named Ms Amber Wagner sang Senta and is the dramatic soprano to watch – with a major presence and penetrating voice and crystal (not quite the right word) top notes.  Franz-Josef Selig was a fine Daland and Michael Volle sang the title role, much of it standing on mid-air ship's gantry.  Ben Bliss was an excellent steersman.  AJ Glueckert was Erik, equally good.  A fair review would take pages considering all the detail of this giant production, evocative of craggy coastlines and misty outlines in snow.  Most effective perhaps was the Ducthman’s crew’s awakening near the end.  Eerie and spooky souls like ghosts in vast contrast to the raucous celebration of the Norse townsfolk on the docks. 
Joseph Calleja as the Duke of Mantua in the 'casino' Rigoletto was in extremely good vocal and dramatic form.  Mr Lucic as jester was great 'in parts' while Miss Peretyatko’s voice might be a bit too light for Gilda.  This up-dated, fluorescent Rigoletto uses every trick imaginable in the gamblers' cabaret paradise including Playboy Bunny Girls, wheel-of-fortune, roulette, lap dancers, mobile cocktail bar, cards, poker machines and … just when you thought you had seen everything, some rehearsed dandies solemnly parade in an ornate Egyptian sarcophagus which suddenly reveals a female stripper, very much alive!   The intruders to the first act party, Count Monterone and side-kicks, were here turbaned Arabs, very annoyed about gambling and drinking going on next door to their harem (plus having the daughter raced off by the sleazy casino owner).  They got their comeuppance in the next act by being shot at point-blank range by in-house security, only a slight deviation from the original. 
Alfano was a very serious composer who wrote in several very different styles.  His ending of Turandot is well known and now his Cyrano de Bergerac is being performed after Domingo first sang it at the Met 12 years ago.   To my mind it is one of the great vocal and dramatic feats for the tenor to compare with Siegfried or Siegmund.  And Roberto Alagna does a stentorian job of this declamatory and dramatic work opposite Roxanne of Jennifer Rowley.  The Met production is a major undertaking, starting in a staged theatre and moving to a balcony street scene followed by a battle field, then a monastery.  Bravo the wizardry of the Met stage hands. 
So who was the star of the month? Well, I have to say I derived vast pleasure from the wonderful Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan who excelled in his three roles: Sparafucile, Gremin and Commendatore.  I have never heard such a long, low bass note as the Mantuan (Burgundian) hired gun repeating his own name down the stave: ‘Sparafucile!’ as Rigoletto sings ‘Va, va, va, va’.  And Gremin’s aria was exceedingly moving and dignified while Onegin looks on in horror.  Don Giovanni’s first victim’s father also sings from the dead, using two voices from the one larynx.  Fantastic feats and Met would be wise to sign up this man for life (and maybe they have). 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
More about Hello Dolly with Bette Midler and 50 year Met concert later. 

23 February, 2017

Nazi period Tosca revival triumph of the voice and drama.

Tosca – Sydney Opera House – Friday 17th Feb 2017
For the first time I can recall the national company has put on an opera with four imported artists of international calibre.  And it shows.  This is a stunning outing of the John Bell Tosca set in Nazi occupied Rome, swastikas, straight-arm salutes, Hitler youth and all.  It is dramatically intact and intense.  But most importantly, we are bathed in a tsunami of vocalism from start to finish. 
Richard Anderson as Angelotti started proceedings with his booming bass, followed by Luke Gabbedy as the adenoidal Sacristan.  Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta and Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai then gave us a believable and at times funny lovers scene followed by the stentorian Te Deum with veteran Italian baritone Lucio Gallo and chorus almost raising the roof.  This scene with its gradual crescendo and rhythmic beat was so penetrating that I hummed it for days. 
The three main roles showed that they were star material in their own ways.  Most impressive was after a fine rendition of Tosca’s prayer Vissi d’arte the final note on the simple word “cosi”.  This was taken beyond the score to a fine diminuendo and then ultimately a plosive bleat with devastating effect.  It makes one appreciate that Ms Arteta is doing something novel for her money.  Just singing the notes for Cavaradossi is enough to earn his fee … yet Mr Ilincai did more than that, looking the part and acting well.  Signore Gallo had what it takes, looking more like a gentleman than a rapist, but that’s the part he plays in Rome of the day. 
Grand opera is like international sport and without top stars it cannot survive with seats costing over $300 each.  Like the Williams sisters, Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Michael Phelps, these exemplary singers have role models in their field.  The national company seems to have finally realised this and we are now hearing top class singers again. 
Mr Badea (the fourth imported artist) kept up the pace with a huge ovation before act 3 for his orchestra.  The chorus, comprimario singers and boy soprano were all also excellent. 
I make a point of sitting further back than most reviewers, about half way to the rear of the hall.  On this occasion even patrons in the most distant seats would not have missed one note, such was the sheer power of the singing.  Unlike many of this company’s opera reprises this is certainly worth a return visit. 
BTW, Nabucco live from the Met was finally shown in Australian cinemas last weekend and was a triumph and a pleasure.  Placido Domingo is near 80 years of age yet is able to portray every emotion and sing the baritone socks off the weakened Babylonian king.  Liudmyla Monastyrska played Abigaille (the “soprano-killer” role) while Dimtry Belosselskiy sang a forceful Rabbi-in-charge.  The staging by John Napier and Elijah Moshinsky is simply brilliant. 
This is the final production before the opera theatre closes for major renovations.  The "season" now goes into 'homeless' mode with various venues, concert performances but still some phenomenal repertoire.  Later in the year we look forward to Thais, Verdi's Manzoni Requiem, Parsifal and Madama Butterfly (Capitol).  
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

14 February, 2017

A new star appears in Sydney ... Ermonela Jaho becomes Violetta.

La Traviata – Sydney Opera House – Friday 3rd February 2017.
This re-run of the very fine Moshinsky production of La Traviata included Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Violetta.  The company's web site quotes The Economist as saying she is the world's “most acclaimed soprano”, a ridiculous thing to write and even more ridiculous to quote.  But it did make me rather look forward more than usual to a Sydney Opera opening of this over-exposed warhorse of the Sydney operatic stage. 
Like the role of Norma, Violetta requires every quality a soprano can harbour.  And Ms Jaho showed in the first act that she has the requisite coloratura and bravura … but better was to come.  Her nuanced dramatic vocals in Acts 2 and 3 were little short of phenomenal and she received big ovations.  She is a fine actress, taking some small but appropriate liberties with the tempi, clearly evoking every sentiment of the intense drama.  Her voice has a slightly plum-in-mouth quality at times and at the start she almost sounded like a full-voiced mezzo-soprano.  She had slightly imperfect pitch on some high notes to my ear, a small criticism.  Yet she handled an exciting high E flat to end her Act I cadenza and the ‘fire-in-the-fowl-house’ tessitura leading up to it.  And later duets Dite alla giovine and Parigi o Cara were splendid as especially was her Addio del passato and its weakening pulse.  Not since Sutherland's days have we heard such subtle and sublime strains in this great role. 
Her paramour Alfredo was played by competent Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung.  He looked the part and took most of the difficult options.  A pleasant if slightly ‘dry’ voice he was singing with two world class artists, including Jose Carbo who sang and acted superbly as Papa Germont.  His Di Provenza was superlative, followed by the much maligned but to my taste brilliant cabaletta.  We are fortunate that Mr Carbo has chosen to stay in Australia.  With his talents he could sing anywhere. 
The conducting of Maestro Palumbo was the exact opposite of Simone Young from when this production was new about 15 years ago.  He kept all the orchestral parts low-key, low contrast and without the pauses others might use.  So it was very much a symphonic continuo which did not draw attention to the pit.  During some of the soprano solos in acts 2 and 3 maestro seemed to make major allowances for the singer, each of which paid off artistically.  Ms Young insisted on the entire score as written by Verdi, including two verses of Ah fors'e lui. 
The other solo parts were all well sung and the chorus was highly schooled vocally and dramatically. 
It is hard to absolve the company for their ludicrous decision to perform the Polish opera King Roger in their mainstream season.  This is a connoisseur’s piece which has had numerous single outings in the last 90 years but has never gained traction with regular audiences.  I found the story to be superficial and the poetry banal and empty.  Melodies are hard to find and repetitive rhythmic beats are somehow reminiscent of Satyagraha by Glass.  Neither is my cup of operatic Earl Grey … but each to their own!  As for the brilliant Covent Garden co-production, wasted in my view on King Roger … the opening lighting of a massive sculpted head is simply brilliant.  I would use the set for an opera on Freud and psychoanalysis.  Any takers? 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

15 January, 2017

Four nights running of La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House.

La Boheme – Puccini – Sydney Opera House.  Thursday 5th January 2017.
This was an auspicious debut for accomplished Australian soprano Greta Bradman who sang the role of Mimi with skill, power and finesse.  She played a most credible lover, bon vivant and, finally the consumptive.  Her voice has a very pleasing timbre with volume to spare, tasteful diminuendos and occasionally a slightly metallic quality in the high range. 
Like most of the decisions of the national company recently it seemed a little odd to cast Ms Bradman as Mimi, yet she acquitted herself with aplomb and professionalism.  She could sing the Queen of Night, Bellini heroines, Handel characters or Rusalka since her range and capabilities are wide.  Bradman was second cast after the gala opening with Italian Mariangela Sicilia who also sang creditably the previous night (yes, I went twice – and I have a day job).  Originally it was Nicole Car billed to sing opening night but a search now places her as being in Montreal (I was told she is expecting a baby - congrats!). 

Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung sang Rodolfo with strength and accuracy (a countryman had sung the role on opening night).  His high notes rang with an even clarity and excitement.  Australian audiences are used to the optional high C at the end of Act I and this tenor did not disappoint.  When singing together Chung and Bradman were splendid, almost reminiscent of the recording of Caruso and Melba.  I had goose bumps numerous times, a good measure of this person’s satisfaction.  Taryn Fiebig sang Musetta’s fiery role well but I was intrigued that Christopher Tonkin as Marcello seemed under-powered and reticent on opening night yet opened up and sang brilliantly on the second.  Perhaps he was daunted, as anyone would, at singing a major role four nights running, something no professional opera company should ask an opera singer to do (his role was not paired). 
The production by Gale Edwards and Brian Thomson was said to be set in Germany, rather odd for an opera clearly set in Paris.  Yet there seemed nothing particularly German about the setting although it deviated from the librettists rather detailed instructions but was an enjoyable and original variation.  The original change was that Marcello was not simply painting a canvas of the parting of the Red Sea (the opening lines of the opera).  He was painting the entire inside of a huge octagonal barn which we see in preparation in Act 1 then in magnificent biblical panorama in Act IV.  The English translations take many liberties, seemingly in an effort to be over-funny and/or raunchy.  It is totally unnecessary as the original, faithfully translated, is sheer brilliance.  The Café Momus scene contained a coup-de-theatre with velveted opera boxes suddenly rotating out of the walls, revealing a mirrored audience including fops, pimps, drags and a naked lady or two. 
The chorus and orchestra under Maestro Carlo Montanaro were all excellent as usual.   I am ever mystified at the shortage of Australian conductors engaged by this company. 
This near-perfect work, like the Scottish play, has many historical quirks.  Caruso is said to have pushed a warm sausage into the hand of Melba before singing ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’.  Caruso once sang the basso ‘Coat’ aria facing away from the audience when the character playing Colline had a sudden bout of  laryngitis.  A multitude of fish, birds and animals are mentioned in the libretto which can make a good trivia question.  Whale, trout, salmon, herring, beaver, peacock, parrot, vixen, viper, horse, toad are just a few which come to mind.  The inscription on Melba’s gravestone: ‘Addio, senza rancor’ is from this opera.  Pavarotti once said that he liked to debut in every new opera house with the role of Rodolfo (a sign of his laziness on the one hand, yet his vocal perfection at performing this challenging role). 
Another bonus of the harbourside venue are the evening departure of huge ocean liners just before curtain time (Celebrity Solstice, Nordaam, Voyager of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas this week).  But the internal tragedy is the demise of our long running repertory company, replaced with the new ‘festival company’ under present management.  We now have a limited number of staged performances of mostly popular and over-exposed operas in place of ~15 high quality operas to choose from each year previously.  And now we have a government report proving what is obvious to any opera goer, pointing out that Opera Australia has effectively double-dipped by taking funds for opera while producing a large proportion of musicals which are commercially viable, unlike grand opera which is the purpose of an opera company and the government grants it receives.  See some extracts below for those who might be interested in the gory detail. 
Comments by Andrew Byrne .. Andrew's blog
The National Opera Review – Final Report dated 2016 and signed by Helen Nugent, Andrew McKinnon, Kathryn Fagg and Moffatt Oxenbould. 
Extract from Executive Summary (p i-viii):
While the Review supports [each company having] … its own artistic and strategic direction … it also recommends … that the companies should be penalised if agreed funded activities are not delivered (Recommendations 5.6 to 5.9).
The Review also recommends that significant commercial activities, such as Opera Australia’s long-run musicals, should not be funded because there are viable independent commercial competitors in the market (Recommendations 5.10 and 5.11). This is a significant conclusion of the Review. This is not to suggest that Opera Australia should not continue to stage musicals on a purely commercial basis.
Artistic vibrancy
The number, balance and quality of mainstage productions is integral to the future of opera as an artform and the success of the companies.
It is the very lifeblood of each opera company, providing the basis for artistic engagement with audiences and the employment of artists. But, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), it has also been the financial Achilles heel of each Major Opera Company, making a growing negative financial contribution.
Opera Australia and Opera Queensland, in particular, have responded to this challenge by reducing the number of mainstage productions and/or performances they offer and, in the case of Opera Australia, by offering longer runs of frequently repeated popular mainstage operas.
The unintended consequence has been that audience numbers for mainstage opera have declined and employment opportunities for artists have significantly decreased.
The Review considers that such a situation is not sustainable. To that end, it recommends that core funding should be provided for a defined number of mainstage productions. More specifically, it is recommended that … [various specific numbers of  productions for each state and national opera companies].  
See full report for details and apologies for these incomplete and selected quotes.