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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 ..