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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!