Andrew's Opera was previously published at

23 April, 2020

Met stream repeat of "at-home" gala this weekend.

Dear Opera Friends, 

The Met has been streaming one opera per day from both HD series and earlier archives. These are available by simply opening their web site and clicking on 'watch now'. Their unique initiative to engage performers and audience again began on April 25 with over 40 of their top artists performing from home. It was a great success but only available on-line for 24 hours. Most moving perhaps is 'Va pensiero' from Nabucco with chorus and orchestra members somehow coordinated digitally, conducted from Canada by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Clever audio mixing, clever camera work and magnificent choral opera at its best. Your favourite singers and very likely some of your favourite solos in a 4 hour spectacular. A couple of duets, too. We now learn that singing is a potent transmitter of Covid virus and it is depressing to think that normality in the entertainment world may not return until a vaccine is found. Best wishes from Andrew Byrne in Sydney, NSW where we are very fortunate to be almost Covid-free (only one community case in past 2 weeks).

29 March, 2020

Last Tango in Sydney-Attila at SOH-Great production, great singing of early Verdi work.

Dear Colleagues,

In the weeks before the storm clouds of Covid 19 gathered I was privileged to attend a series of moving cultural events culminating in the opening night on 12th March of Attila at the Sydney Opera House, a co-production with La Scala, Milan, conducted by Andrea Licata.  I attended with my sister and brother-in-law from Perth, WA plus a lot of local dignitaries, pollies and other free-loaders.  Broadcast on ABC Classic FM radio:

The sets used some ruined stone arches from antiquity joined to modern steel girder structures.  These opened and closed, just like the windows of opportunity for peace and war between all-conquering Attila and a failing Roman state. 

As Odabella Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan was strident and accurate for the requirements of this stentorian role (her opening scene is my ‘desert island piece’ and I was not disappointed – go to 14 minutes in on ABC audio if you dare).  Taras Berezhansky sang the title role with his resplendent bass voice and elegant frame while tenor Diego Torre sang Foresto using his magnificent spinto, perhaps the best we have heard from a resident tenor since the days of Donald Smith.  Italian baritone Simone Piazzola played Ezio the Roman general, also not missing a beat along with Australian trained tenor Virgilio Marino playing Uldino.  All were top notch and up to the enormous demands of the roles.  I note while listening the ABC broadcast that Mr Piazzola sang his declamatory and patriotic second act aria ending on a most exciting B flat, a note usually reserved for tenors (1hr 28m).  

A formal review of the opera could take some pages … very little to criticise and much to praise.  The cold-blooded shooting of numerous female captives in the opening scene was a little shocking but emphasised the gall and spirit of Odabella in addressing the King of the Huns.  A great sadness that the season was curtailed after the second performance and that so few will see this magnificent work (even the opening was only half full).  It was the Australian premiere.  And we may not see it again for a very long time.  

I had seen Attila at Carnegie Hall in 2003 with Lauren Flanagan and then again in 2010 in a wonderful production at the New York Met.  On that occasion we met some cast members backstage afterwards including bass Samuel Ramey and conductor Marco Ameliato.  Mr Ramey had sung the title role in 2003 and in his ‘retirement’ sang the small role of Pope Leo in the Met production 7 years later.  He may be the last living singer from the ‘Golden Age’ [sic] of Opera which included Joan Sutherland. 

My pre-corona season had started 3 weeks earlier with a concert by young singers for our NSW Wagner Society.  My immediate reaction was that young singers should not be singing Wagner.  Fortunately the program was balanced and ‘safe’ including some Weber, R. Strauss, Humperdinck, Beethoven and Marx.  There followed a fun Sydney Mardi Gras party - a sedate gathering of young and old the night before the big parade.  Then a wonderful Selby and Friends chamber group concert called ‘A Tale of Two Cities: St Petersburg and Vienna’.  Ms Selby at the piano with clarinet, violin and ‘cello we heard works by Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky and Arensky.  The Arensky piano trio in D minor was most novel and impressive and it appears I have been missing this wonderful late Russian composer and will seek out more of his works. 

During this period I also celebrated my brother’s birthday in Erskineville then my nephew’s engagement in Potts Point, a gay wedding of an old school friend and long-time Aboriginal partner on Sydney Harbour then sadly there was the funeral of a friend in the Southern Highlands (not Covid related).  During February my niece’s young medical student colleague was holed up on the Diamond Princess in Japan with regular bulletins from his parents and sibs isolation on board – portending what is now happening around the globe.  And I continue working at the medical clinic near Sydney's Central Station (where there are very few travellers nowadays).  

With regards and wishes for more strength to all readers for the difficult days ahead. 

Andrew Byrne ..

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28 March, 2020

I’m on a Handel High ! In praise of Semele !

Dear Colleagues (it’s long, so get a coffee or press delete!),

Semele by George Friderich Handel – novel opera of great genius, unfairly overlooked. 

This it to praise the joys of Handel’s magnificent masterpiece of 1744 and to recommend the numerous recordings and YouTube versions available to readers. 

Handel changed the face of opera, concert and choral music in a long career from Germany to Rome and then to London where he was virtually adopted by the English and even became a naturalised citizen.  Handel was born in the same year as JS Bach, Domenico Scarlatti and John Gay, 1685. 

Handel wrote 40 operas in 30 years, most of which disappeared into obscurity until the 1950s when enthusiasts in England and America became interested to re-create these works using original instruments and the vocal devices and techniques of the baroque period (excluding castrati!). 

Apart from some recent praise, unkind things have sometimes been written on this list like: ‘all his music sounds the same: they just change the title’.  However, closer listening reveals a mature genius in melodic invention, dramatic flow and orchestral originality.  This is certainly the case with Semele.  Most Handel operas have one aria which became a memorable showpiece.  Ombra mai fu (‘Handel’s largo’ from Serse); Torami a vagheggiar (Alcina); Let the bright Seraphim (Samson); Care selve (Atalanta); V’adoro, pullilae (Julius Caesar); Where shall I fly? (Hercules); Lascia, ch’io pianga (Rinaldo); Dove sei, amato bene (Rodelinda).  

Apparently some in London were sick and tired of Italian operas.  Samuel Johnson even defined opera in his dictionary in 1755 as ‘an exotic and irrational entertainment’.  ‘Exotic’ in those days meant foreign.  So Handel moved with the times and wrote Semele to an English libretto penned from the Ovid’s Metamorphoses about the illicit liaison between Jupiter and Semele to the consternation of his wife Juno and with the conniving of Semele’s sister Ino.  The last lines of the opera allude to the birth of Bacchus, son of Semele and Jupiter and bringer of mirth, joy and libido. 

However, when in early 1744 the libretto was presented to Covent Garden as a raunchy piece involving sex out of marriage, betrayal, death on stage, etc, it was determined that it could not be staged during Lent, a season of solemn self deprivation.  Brilliant tactician as he was, Handel told the management and his publisher that Semele was an opera “in the manner of an Oratorio”.  Hence it was performed from the concert platform in English to the delight of the public.  London did not want to miss out again on the first performance as they had with Messiah which opened in Dublin after London found it inappropriate for a church.  Like Messiah, Semele was reportedly written in about a month, a phenomenal feat, especially for someone who had a recent heart attack. 

Messiah has become one of the most popular choral pieces of all time (see excellent videos from Trinity Church Wall Street).  It is my view that Semele should have been as popular, such are its enormous musical, vocal and dramatic virtues.  Semele’s time may have finally arrived as a few serious performances have been given and mainstream opera companies are turning their attention to Handel.  YouTube provides some impressive examples (see below for some recommended links including Cecilia Bartoli in Zurich). 

Some say Semele is Handel’s best opera.  I heard Charles Mackerras spoke highly of the work and conducted Joan Carden in the title role in Australia.  Just the second act has three of the most famous arias ever written … ‘Iris Hence Away’ for the mezzo-soprano; ‘Sleep, why do’est thou leave me’ for the soprano and ‘Where ‘ere you walk’ for the tenor.  Do many (or any?) other operas have three immortal arias in just one act?  All singing students should learn some Handel … and often one of the above - but only when they are quite advanced in their training since these are all major exercises in breathing, coloratura and ornamentation. 

The soprano sings two phenomenal pieces each of which dwarfs even the Queen of Night’s arias by Mozart.  ‘Myself I shall adore, should I persist in gazing’; ‘No, no, I'll take no less …’.  Semele could become my favourite opera (equal with Norma?). 

Notes and hyperbolae by Andrew Byrne in Sydney ..  (quivering at the prospect of visiting New York in 3 weeks despite Coronavirus threat). Will the Met stay open, I wonder?

Zurich Opera with C. Bartoli

Rosemary Joshua soprano classy.  C. Curnyn 2007

A very alternative and modern production from Long Beach Opera.

Phenomenal soprano antics.  ?who ?where Simone Kermes?

Boston Handel/Haydn society web site is very impressive and instructive.