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: https://www.abc.net.au/classic/programs/sunday-opera/sunday-opera-verdi-attila/12083484
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
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
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
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
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
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?