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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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