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31 March, 2021

Sydney: 4 operas past season, 4 more this winter plus chamber classics.

Chamber music icons perform around the country while Sydney opera season returns with four classics from summer and another four to follow this winter.

The Tosca run ended near the Ides of March after a season which started with The Merry Widow followed by Ernani and Bluebeard’s Castle.  The last time a non-opera opened an opera season I castigated the management (My Fair Lady in 2008) but this time I have nothing but praise and admiration for a company which has reformed itself to a changing set of Covid rules as local cases waned towards zero.  Initially only 50% of seats could be sold for maximal distancing: then 75%, now 100% in mid-March for the fourth opera in the series.  In January there were limited pre-opera drinks only but by March intermission drinks were restored as long as patrons only mingled outdoors – and masks during the performance were compulsory. 

There have been rumours of pay cuts and cancelled contracts with orchestra and chorus members but at least they are now getting some work and the audience is seeing some high quality opera.  Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle is not my favourite opera yet the audience went wild at the end of the 55 minute shocking musical drama.  John Rayment’s contrasted lighting was amazing and orchestration brilliant yet the drama could overexpose the bass and mezzo-soprano in an opera lacking a chorus, tenor or soprano (!).  As Bluebeard’s newest wife Judith, Romanian mezzo-soprano Carmen Topciu was most impressive both dramatically and vocally.  The title role was bass Daniel Sumegi who kept up the incredible tension to the very end.  I’m not sure if Hungarian is a natural language for opera.  But at least I can now say that I have heard a quality performance of this repertoire classic in a major opera house.  Ernani was splendid so early Verdi fans should be happy to hear Natalie Aroyan is returning in another La Scala shared production Attila in winter (it was suspended after 2 performances a year ago due to Covid lock-downs). 

Tosca with soprano Carmen Giannattasio, tenor Diego Torre and bass baritone Marco Vratogna was simply splendid … conducted by brilliant young maestro Andrea Battistoni.   John Bell’s 1940’s updating seems to work better than most.  And a “first” on our performance, possibly due to women’s day and the current movement exposing violence against women: a large part of the audience burst into applause when Scarpia finally died after a hectic stabbing bout.  Furthermore, just after this, as Tosca is forgiving her attacker’s corpse, she covers the body with the Nazi banner which Cavaradossi had ripped down in his joyous ‘Vittoria’ strains.  So the production vilified Nazism. 

In the Southern Highlands front we have had two concerts in March … Australian Haydn Ensemble doing three string quartets by Pleyel, Mozart and Haydn on a Sunday afternoon at Burrawang.  Then a week later Selby and Friends did four piano trios at Chevalier College in Burradoo.  Featured were Turina, Bloch, Shostakovich and Schubert.  The first three were lovely snippets but the Schubert was a major musical world of joy, melody and playful harmonies between piano, ‘cello and violin.  All absolutely splendid and wonderful to think that these magnificent performers, many of whom have played in Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and other similar international venues, also tour to Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney venues. 

Artists coming from overseas had to spend 2 weeks in hotel quarantine, like the tennis players.  Nothing is easy.  We are very fortunate to be almost Covid-free in Australia. 

La Traviata on Sydney Harbour is on for most of April.  The new winter opera season starts on 22nd June with a ‘digital’ Aida followed by Otello, Attila and the Tales of Hoffmann.  The latter is with Jessica Pratt performing all 4 heroines following in Joan Sutherland’s footsteps from 1985.  Should be fun for all, except for the title tenor! 

04 February, 2021

Ernani by Verdi. Sydney Opera House 2nd Feb 2021.

 Dear Readers, 

We were privileged to see Verdi’s early masterpiece Ernani in a co-production with La Scala Milan.  Following last year’s Attila (also a Milan co-production but stymied after two performances by the Covid pandemic) we again heard soprano Natalie Aroyan and tenor Diego Torre as doomed lovers.  Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov was the king and Ukrainian Vitalij Kowaljow sang basso role of Silva.  All these singers, other soloists and chorus were at the highest level and put in sterling performances.  There were ravishing choruses, duets, trios and a quartet, all in excellent form with much exciting music included for the love ‘quadrangle’, populus and court.  The orchestra was also in fine form under Maestro Renato Palumbo, receiving a huge ovation in the single intermission. 

Nicely balancing the crazy Quixotic plot by Victor Hugo, this production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf became a ‘play within a play’.  During the overture our travelling troupe arrived with their bags and wide eyes to an open proscenium, flies, flats, ropes and curtain control wheels all visible … which venue became the various scenes for the opera.  I found it terribly clever while others said it was silly.  It certainly allowed numerous comic elements in an otherwise profound tragedy. 

Ms Aroyan sang and acted superbly, as did her three suitors.  Her Act I set piece ‘Surte e la notte’ was superb, comprising recitative, aria and cabaletta (with chorus).  This was one of the first and last arias recorded by Joan Sutherland about 25 years apart.  I heard more than one audience member saying that Aroyan was no Joan Sutherland.  Well, yes, but who is?  Netrebko is busy and may not cope with 2 weeks in quarantine.  Few top sopranos could sing all these notes, let alone carry off the role … and I don’t think Joan Sutherland ever did Ernani on stage either – and furthermore, her full recording was made when both she and Pavarotti were past their primes. 

Verdi wrote famously for the baritone and we were not disappointed with Mr Stoyanov.  Likewise Mr Kowaljow sang with a manly presence and velvet tone.  And Diego Torre put forward perhaps his best role yet, having a full bodied tenor range and ample volume.  We are fortunate that he is now a company member and an Australian citizen.  He commences the magnificent final trio, ‘Solingo errante e misero’ which was popularised by the Lincoln Centre concert with Pavarotti, Sutherland, Horne (Horne singing the baritone part!). 

Overseas artists must have travelled to Sydney with special permits and stayed in hotel quarantine for which we should all be appreciative.  Covid stringencies affect artists just like tennis players. 

How fortunate in Sydney that we had a 75% full auditorium (socially distanced, compulsory masks, no foyer mingling) of opera fans enjoying this art form once again in Sydney.  Covid has been at low levels here for 6 months and the last isolated cases were just two weeks ago.  Opera is indeed an “exotic and irrational entertainment” as per Dr Johnson’ dictionary.  One day someone will write an opera about Covid-19.  I wonder what Johnson would have made of The Merry Widow or Cats! 

Written by Andrew Byrne ..


Opera season resumes at Sydney Opera House with The Merry Widow.

Dear Readers, 

I have been to the opening night of a marvellous production of The Merry Widow, part of a four opera subscription season this summer (along with Ernani, Tosca and Bluebeard’s Castle).  We still have some Covid clusters in Sydney but life largely continues as usual.  The 50% capacity rule for live theatre was raised to 75% a few weeks ago and I estimate that was about the attendance last night.  Things can change very rapidly with Covid-19 so we are all on tenterhooks and taking all precautions and sanctions by our state governments. 

It was a strange feeling returning to familiar scenes in unfamiliar times ... masks compulsory, drinks pre-opera but NOT during intermissions; social distancing, digital tickets, logs in and out on QR codes, etc. 

Only once before did the opera company open their "opera" season with a piece from musical theatre rather than opera - My Fair Lady many years ago.  

More about 'Widow' from the usual reviewers … I enjoyed it greatly and felt that all singers were excellent, the show was non-stop fun.  Highly recommended!  Seats available from $40 to $335 see OA web site.  We had an extraordinary electrical storm here in Sydney after the opera ... quite theatrical!  And no charge!! 

Andrew Byrne ..