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09 October, 2018

Culture and tulips in the Southern Highlands.

One does not have to travel to Sydney as the arts come to the Southern Highlands on a regular basis.  Ruddigore is one of the least known Gilbert and Sullivan works but is a dark classic, famous for patter songs.  It originally ran in London in 1887 for 300 performances and earned Mr Gilbert 6000 pounds.  I last saw it in Armidale, NSW, in 1965!  The Bundanoon Soldiers’ Hall performance on Sat 29th September was full and frolicsome.  G&S were forerunners of today’s West End and Broadway musicals. 

Selby and Friends concerts continue in Mittagong and Bowral, returning to their original location, now fully refurbished, at Chevalier College in 2019.  Every two months for many years renowned pianist Kathryn Selby has brought three or four virtuoso musicians for a chamber concert centring on Beethoven but featuring many others from before and since including some contemporary works.  The concerts are always an entertainment and often an education as well, ideally timed for 5pm on Saturday evenings.  Next concert is Sat 13 October. 

The Australian Haydn Ensemble continue their performances, the latest at Kangaloon Hall on Sat 6th October with the same program played the following day at the Sydney Opera House, Utzon Room (Winx on the sails!).  This featured an important 19th century genre being transcriptions of full symphonic works for smaller groups of instruments.  This was the only way most people living away from the big centres (as most did) would ever hear the great symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and others.  We were treated to a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s first symphony in C by 6 string instruments plus flute.  It was brilliant, being both familiar and different at the same time.  

Local born pianist Andrew Rumsey has been doing a popular French duet program around the towns too including the Rose Room in Burradoo.  Too much on for me to get there but it must have been fun. 

I have seen the tulips in Bowral each week for the past several and while some beds are over their peak, there are still lots to see … and finally the double Japanese cherry is starting to flower.  With some light rain, nobody is complaining. 

Best wishes to locals and visitors alike. 

Andrew Byrne ..

31 July, 2018

Opera trifecta ... glorious vocal drama at Sydney Opera House winter 2018

Lucia di Lammermoor with Jessica Pratt, Michael Fabiano, Giorgio Caoduro, c. Carlo Montanaro. 
Rigoletto with Dalibor Jenis, Gainluca Terranova, Irina Lungu, Taras Berezhansky, c. Renato Palumbo. 
Aida with Amber Wagner, Elena Gabouri, Riccardo Massi, Warwick Fyfe, Roberto Scandiuzzi, c. Andrea Battistoni. 

Dear Colleagues,

I feel very torn having seen three truly magnificent opera performances while at the same time seeing further evidence of a company on a path to self-destruction.  Each year Opera Australia has contained less opera and less Australian content under present management.  There is no opera at all for three months of the year (musicals take centre stage) and most of the main opera roles are taken by foreign-based artists.  What a sadness that so much artistic dollar now goes offshore ... and as a result the company no longer encourages talented young local singers with the prospect of a career in opera in Australia. 

These things aside for a moment, we were privileged to enjoy the glorious, full blooded operas with Lucia, Rigoletto and Aida, starting the new winter season.  These include the famous Sextet, the Quartet and Triumphal March, along with much, much more. 

There were many high points … but two stand-out performances were Jessica Pratt in the Lucia Mad Scene and Michael Fabiano’s finale of the same opera.  Both were unique demonstrations of the finest renditions of vocal drama – each a master class.  Both had done the same roles in New York recently, but not together.  Ms Pratt omits the act I cadenza which is sensible but adds a needless if very exciting high F in the scene in her brother’s studio.  The sextet and cabaletta with chorus are high class vocalism but the mad scene wins all the gongs in town.  Ms Pratt has everyone spell-bound with her flights, frights and heights.  The glass harmonica is replaced by the flute in a tight and accurate orchestra under Maestro Montanaro. 

A libretto I consulted omits the wonderful Wolf Crag Scene which was sung splendidly by Messrs Caoduro and Fabiano.  The libretto also left out the scene in act II between Lucia and Raimondo (played here very competently by Richard Anderson).  There are also some lines after the chorus endings later in the opera which were included in this very full and fine rendition.  I wish I could say the same of the production which was bland, grey and uninspiring.  There was no fountain!  Nor even an oily doily marking the spot. 

Leo Nucci had cancelled his much anticipated Rigoletto, replaced by a very fine Dalibor Jenis from Bratislava.  The new production had also been cancelled due to funds but was unlikely to match the standard of the wonderful old Moshinsky / Yeargan set in Mantua’s court portrait gallery in surely its last outing. 

American soprano Amber Wagner was a mighty Aida with one of the loudest voices I have ever heard (and big, beautiful vocalism is what we pay for).  The pace-setting new production uses tall LED panels in place of scenery and props.  Yet the production used images more like Iceland than Egypt.  We were regaled with huge fast moving clouds, bush fires and sea scapes, all rare in Egypt … and there seemed no impression of Egypt’s torrid heat and blue sky.  The towering structures projected were like Maurits Escher inventions, containing multiple arches.  Yet the arch was not invented until Greco-Roman times.  The head-dresses bore little resemblance to Egypt and some looked more like Meso-American eagle gods and Doctor Who Cybermen.  Some of the hieroglyphs were real (in the tomb scene) while others might have been a hieratic washing bill.  But no matter - the voices were all splendid, notably local Warwick Fyfe as Amonasro.  His magnificent “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente” is still humming in my ear.  Ms Gabouri and Mr Massi were excellent as Amneris and Radames.  Even the relatively small role of Ramfis was taken by top international bass Roberto Scandiuzzi, adding to the star-studded line-up. 

The technicolor panels were moved incessantly, often for no particular dramatic reason – up down and sideways, etc.  Yet at times the set change was dramatic and almost instantaneous.  Apparently we will see more operas using such technology, as with the Met Ring which uses narrow hinged LED panels to great effect.  It was surprising to me that there were still several short pauses in a darkened house between scenes in Aida.  The company chose to have only one intermission which in my view is an insult to composer, patrons, singers and bar staff alike.  On a practical note for an aging audience it also causes more congestion in the toilets in the single intermission.  Another reflection of the audience is that the matinee is so heavily booked these days. 

So what is to become of the national opera company now that it has so few resident artists and spends so much of the year performing musicals?  A successful formula used for over 50 years has been dumped and a repertory company has been turned into a ‘festival’ company.  The present management makes no apologies as this has been the aim for some years, only now coming to fruition.  Even costumes are now made in Thailand.  The MEAA cannot defend Australian artists, wig makers, etc.  My question is whether the ‘new formula’ is sustainable.  Already the opera on the harbour has had to start repeating popular works and the great majority of theatre performances are of ‘top of the pops’ or ‘ABC’ of opera (Aida, Boheme, Carmen).  When is Sydney going to hear Wagner?  Will we ever hear Trittico, Huguenots, Fidelio, Gioconda, Nabucco or Fanciulla again? 

I for one am grateful that we still have an opera company at all.  But it cannot claim to be a truly Australian opera company any longer and may not qualify for government subsidy which would be a disaster considering already high ticket prices up to $350 per seat. 

I will be keeping my subscription for the time being and remain a supporter if a critical one. 

Cheers to all opera lovers (and thanks for the patience of the normal people out there). 

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

08 May, 2018

Best Lucia in years at the Met. Jessica Pratt has it all!

Lucia di Lammermoor.  Metropolitan Opera Tues 11th and 15th April 2018
Dear Colleagues,
It is my view that these performances are a milestone in the performance history of this opera.  And I don't just say that because I am an Australian ... Ms Pratt was born in England and came to Australia aged 11.  In the past decade she has sung in many European opera houses before being engaged by The Met as second of three Lucias after Olga Peretyatko and before Pretty Yende.  Pratt has sung only rarely down-under but is finally engaged to sing this very role with the national company later this year.  I would advise everyone to try for a ticket as they will not be disappointed on the Met performances. 
There was a strong cast in a dark but effective production by Mary Zimmerman.  The production was up-dated to the 1920s which would have been fine but for two rather stupid and distracting ‘side shows’ starting with the entire sextet being a set-up for a wedding photograph, hooded box camera, old slide film, flash and all.  Furthermore, for the end of the mad scene a doctor arrived with black bag and hypodermic in the right deltoid … like the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Most unnecessary and from the box of: “when in doubt, add more” as my decorator uncle used to say.  
Popular Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo took all the difficult options as Edgardo and at times he was almost over the top.  His final scene in the graveyard was exemplary, ending the opera on a seriously exciting and tragically moving point.  I was told it was a semi-tone down … to which I replied: “So what?” 
It was a matter of 'if you have got it, flaunt it!'   Ms Pratt sang an unwritten and unexpected high F (youch!) at the end of the scene with her brother and the priest.  This was about the only thing I would be critical of but for the magnificent overall portrayal.  A colleague told me that Beverly Sills once did it.  Like the high E flat in Callas's Mexico City Aida, it is exciting and unique. 
The mad scene was a tour de force and Ms Pratt added quite a few of her own flourishes, all now tasteful and in keeping with the bel canto piece.  Her final cabaletta E flat was the longest and strongest E flat I have ever heard and it was simply extraordinary, especially when the rest of the aria was sung to perfection in a stylish manner worthy of any opera house.  All principals had voices which were large and beautiful.  It was a shame that Normanno played admirably by Gregory Schmidt did not hit his optional high note in the first scene with the woodsmen which would have set the standard for the entire performance. 
Enrico on the Wednesday was Luca Salsi with Mr Cavaletti on the Saturday, both singing at a very high level and taking the difficult options.  There were some rubati, ritenuto and other liberties which must have been with the conductor's permission (Maestro Abbado was back from being indisposed).  Raimondo was played more than adequately by bass Mr Kowaljow from the Ukraine. 
The applause from the Met audience was rapturous, almost ecstatic.  Like most operas these days the house was not full.  There were no bouquets or ticker-tape which would certainly have been the case if Ms Pratt had sung the whole season.  The comparison with the first soprano could not be more contrasted.  The first was adequate while the second, Ms Pratt was incomparable.  Brava Jessica Pratt who went on to sing I Puritani in Italy the following week.  We look forward to hearing her Lucia in June/July. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

01 May, 2018

Opera scene in April 2018 in Manhattan:

New York offered a real panoply of opera this April: Cosi fan Tutte, Lucia di Lammermoor, Turandot, Romeo and Juliette, Luisa Miller, Cendrillon and Tosca at the Met along with Bernstein’s Candide at Carnegie Hall.  Ms Netrebko’s Tosca was a high point and the only time we saw the Met actually sold out.  Her very fine tenor husband Yusif Eyvazov played Cavaradossi since Marcelo Alvarez had pulled out.  We also heard Exteminating Angel, Lucia and Luisa Miller on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts while we were in the city. 

Our Cosi fan tutte matinee was spoiled by jet-lag so we were fortunate to get ‘rush’ seats a couple of weeks later, getting much more out of the brilliant up-dating to 1960s Coney Island fun fair and adjacent ‘Skyline Motel’ in Brooklyn.  The sometimes problematic story line became slightly MORE believable - the girls not recognising their own lovers … some of the audience might have been in the same boat, such was the transformation of handsome uniformed naval officers into boyish Brooklyn denim dandies.  Broadway star Kelli O’Hara played the scheming maid Despina while accomplished baritone Christopher Maltman played Don Alfonso, patron to the four lovers.  
The final season performance of Turandot may well spell the end of the wonderful grand production set in the forbidden city of Beijing.  Many of the old productions have been replaced into the ‘close-up’ world of HD telecasts, Aida and La Boheme remaining from the previous Met dynasties.  Martina Serafin was stunning at Turadot but Marcelo Alvarez has been having vocal problems after losing some weight, or so we were told, and his Calaf was under-par.  Liu was Hei-Kyung Hong a stalwart of the Met for decades and she did not disappoint with a most touching legato display of vocal and dramatic skills. 

We attended the first (ever) performance of Massenet’s Cendrillon (Cinderella) at the Met.  It had three of the world’s top mezzo-sopranos, Alice Coote, Joyce deDonato and Stephanie Blythe in an absolutely brilliant production … yet the opera fell flat for me just as Don Quichotte and Thais had recently.  Perhaps I am not a Massenet person.  I just can’t imagine why he chose to put neither a baritone nor a tenor into a serious opera.  Others have substituted a male for Prince Charming since, but not at The Met where ‘come scritto’ is the rule.  The hen-pecked father was excellent French bass Laurent Nouri.  He also plays old Capulet in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette. 
Cendrillon dragged on for 4 long acts, each a dream of the following one.  All I could think of was Rossini’s Cenerentola which had more glorious melodic invention in its overture than Massenet’s entire piece.  A singer friend told me afterwards that it is more a ballet-person’s opera than a singer’s.  Are there any well known arias from Cendrillon? 

A New York Times critique of Placido Domingo aged about 80 in Luisa Miller is worth reading on its own .  This brilliant piece of writing likens Domingo’s feat to Federer winning a grand slam ten years hence.  As well as performing the father in Luisa Miller, Domingo was also conducting Romeo and Juliette!  A phenomenon of operatic history.  We enjoyed the performance greatly having first heard Aprile Millo in Rome as Luisa Miller with Alberto Cupido playing the tenor role about 25 years ago ( ) 
A fraction of balance was added to our grand opera schedule was Bernstein’s Candide at Carnegie Hall where Erin Morley was a magnificent Gunegonde … she will sing Woodbird next year in the Ring I believe.  Her Glitter and Be Gay was like the Queen of the Night on steroids.  It was an unexpected privilege by chance to meet sopranos Pretty Yende and Camilla Nyland (quite separately) each in relaxed circumstances far from their costumes, roles, critics, agents, etc in the Met foyers.  Only in New York.  

26 March, 2018

La Traviata at the Sydney Opera House March 2018.

Nicole Car joined by world class colleagues in splendid outing of this Verdi classic. 
Dear Colleagues,
Rarely since the Sutherland days have we heard such dynamic vocalism as from these three magnificent principal artists and the massed talents of the national opera company and orchestra.  I was so impressed on opening night that I ventured back mid-season and was not disappointed.  Both nights were full houses apart from the balcony boxes which were almost empty. 
Mr Ji-Min Park as the younger Germont took all the hard options and they came off splendidly.  A famous American tenor once called this a tenor-killer role which few take on a second time such is its vocal and dramatic challenges. 
Ukranian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy sang and acted a dignified Papa Germont.  His voice is deeply resonant with extended breath control, almost like the late lamented Dmitry Hvorostovsky.  His big aria was splendid with some personal flourishes: Di Provenza il mar il suol with full cabaletta ending the act. He sings very long phrases on single breaths and acts the drama with sincerity. 
But top card goes to soprano Nicole Car who has ‘arrived’ with this portrayal of Violetta, one of the most difficult roles in the operatic canon.  She is required to sing coloratura in Act 1 then solid dramatic soprano for the remainder of the 4 acts.  It would be easy to cast the role using two singers but only rarely does a woman come along who can encompass this double challenge adequately.  But Ms Car does more than that as she becomes the character and sings the heart out of the lines written by the masterful Verdi at the peak of his powers. 
KobbĂ© describes as the opera’s “emotional touchstone” Violetta’s plea “Amami, Alfredo, amami quant'io t'amo” which Ms Car sang to its full richness and pathos. 
These three singers would have sounded very fine in a large opera house so in the confines of our small auditorium in Sydney the effect was absolutely extraordinary.  There were standing ovations on both occasions I attended this season and well deserved.  On the other hand, several magnificent moments receive polite clapping from an audience which perhaps did not know the quality and rarity of what they were hearing away from the better known numbers.  In the first five minutes of the opera comes the duet and chorus Libiamo sometimes called the drinking song.  There is often a whisper of familiarity from members of the audience at that point. 
For those into high notes Sempre libera had Ms Car taking the E flat option on both nights, initially nailing a high, sustained and excitingly unhurried ending but clipping the note only briefly on the Tuesday performance.  Even if it was transposed down slightly it was still creditable.  The tenor also sang his (also unwritten) high C or D flat early in Act 2 as a sustained, accurate and thrilling end to his cabaletta O mio remorso, O infamia.  Mr Bilyy also did some extraordinary things vocally, all tasteful and in keeping with the paternal part. 
The Moshinsky/Yeargan production was resurrected for the umpteenth time simply because it is so good.  Despite the small stage, or perhaps because of it, there is a busy crowd feeling to both first act party and the gambling scene. 
Maestro Licata conducted the orchestra with sympathetic tempi, fundamental to the joy of these unique operatic performances. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. (with some assistance). 

08 January, 2018

Merry Widow at Sydney Opera House ... or is it the West Wing?

The Merry Widow – second ‘opening’ night 2 Jan 2018. 
Dear Reader,
Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow is rightly a classic of the musical stage which requires a soprano of the greatest talents in both acting and voice.  Gladys Moncrieff, June Bronhill and Joan Sutherland were Australians who mastered the role of Hannah Glawari (called Sonia in some English productions).  Danielle de Niese also has what it takes but the microphone, which could have been used as subtle enhancement, was over amplified and unpleasantly unnatural.  Ms de Niese dances superbly and is an outstanding personality on stage.  Her partner is Alexander Lewis, star of opera and musical and son of popular Australia baritone Michael Lewis and mezzo-soprano Patricia Price.   He also sings and acts well as the distant and reticent lover Danilo.  Mr John Longmuir has a substantial tenor voice but he is hardly the dashing figure required of Camille de Rosillon.  Furthermore, the amplification distorted his extraordinary high range so we will never know what he really sounded like. 
Despite handsome sets and costumes, I could not recommend this production.  Our national ‘opera’ company has sunk to new depths, pushed along by a drive away from opera in favour of popular musicals for weeks on end.  They mix opera singers with stars of musical theatre, a very difficult task considering the different training and talents involved.  This immortal operetta, performed by opera singers in a relatively small theatre (1500 seats) with sub-titles, needs no amplification.  But it cannot be sung every night without the use of obvious, imperfect and distorting amplification.  It is a sad irony that in the first production using the new staging and orchestra pit acoustic improvements we are blasted with loud speakers, upsetting the fine balance needed in an opera theatre.  We go to the opera to hear natural voices.  The orchestra sounded the same as usual to me but was sometimes overshadowed by the amplified voices.  The Viennese tunes seemed unstoppable and Maestro Vanessa Scammell kept a traditional pace. 
Some may like the new Australian translation with its updated details, coarse and sexually explicit references.  On many occasions I noted corny and awkward turns of phrase which replaced the charming poetry of the traditional old English translations.  An exception might be the horsey song from Hanna Glawari’s youth which was certainly an improvement on the ‘original’.  Mr Fleming is obviously a gifted poet but it was as if he had done this enormous job in a hurry.  I do not know the original German or Hungarian but the spoken dialogue largely came across as unnatural and unfunny.  I recall one point at which lovers were supposedly ‘embalmed in sweet perfume’ … were they corpses?  Did the company avoid some copyright fees by using a new Australian translation?  Or did it cost more? 
There were a number of other changes to the work if I’m not mistaken.  Lehar’s overture was omitted (it was written after the opening and is often left out).  The Grisettes de Paris are normally led by a contralto ‘Madam’ called ZoZo but here the Widow herself danced with the Maxim girls.  Was this money saving again?  It did seem incongruous. 
Having seen ‘Hello Dolly’ recently in New York I know just how split-second timing, a professional Broadway cast, balanced amplification from orchestra, soloists and chorus can yield a tight and satisfying work.  I have never seen so many smiling faces as in the intermission in the Shubert Theater at Times Square.  I wish I could say the same about the Sydney audience in Lehar’s Merry Widow. 
Over many years during January this ‘opera’ company has produced three or four high quality grand operas, indirectly contributing to the Festival of Sydney.  This year there will be 30 performances of The Merry Widow, making a mockery of the new-found abilities of the opera hall’s mechanical equipment to rapidly change sets from one opera to another following six months of extensive renovations. 
Are there parallels with the current White House?  Decades of tradition have been thrown out in favour of an unproven change in direction.  The fundamental constitution (Mission Statement) of the organisation has been flouted until moves to change it to allow the ‘opera’ company to perform virtually anything.  Pantomimes?  Cabarets?  High masses?  Perhaps someone should write a book about it. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
PS – I was bowled over by magnificent performance of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea at Pinchgut Opera in November – twice the quality at half the price!  Nero’s court was replaced by tattooed Brooklyn thugs – ‘Render unto Caesar …’. 

07 January, 2018

Render unto Caesar .... Poppea at Wynyard in Sydney CBD

L’incoronazione di Poppea – Monteverdi (1642)
Pinchgut Opera – Sydney Recital Hall, Wynyard. 
Dear Colleagues,
This was yet another stylish and witty outing of an operatic rarity by this innovative and daring opera company.  Set in a world of tattooed Brooklyn thugs, big-boss Nero finally gets rid of his legal lady in favour of Rome’s popular paramour, Poppea.  In the process we meet her other admirers and rivals. 
The singers were all excellent while the orchestra was populated with ancient instruments and young musicians who knew how to use them.  It was cute to see a family first with Seneca played by excellent baritone David Greco while the first violin was his grinning brother Matthew Greco. 
The opera starts with a hopeless suitor of Poppea, waiting for her to appear at her window. 
The second half opens with a cocaine fuelled orgy, imperial blow job and all. 
The City Recital Hall is a very agreeable venue in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. 
For more details, get your own subscription … it will be far better value than the national opera company. 
Brief notes from Andrew Byrne ..