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27 December, 2022

Andrew Byrne’s New York Opera Post-card, November 2022.

Bizarrely, one of my New York treats actually occurred back in Sydney with the excellent Pinchgut Opera production of Chapentier’s Medée (1693).  This allowed me to compare the baroque sorceress Medee Catherine Carby with Sondra Radvanovsky as Cherubini’s Medea (1797).  Both productions were of gut-wrenching, relentless drama prompting five deaths by the hand of Medee/Medea – including her own children by Jason (of the Golden Fleece).  Like Callas these sopranos had to do a stentorian job and in both cases we were given every bit of the love, jealousy and murderous deeds.  Would five corpses be a record? 

New York is a very changed place since our last visit before Covid.  Many businesses are gone, others reduced and short-staffed.  During lockdowns most restaurants and cafés erected pavilions which were permitted on the roadway for ‘outdoors’ dining.  Despite the disadvantages to traffic, bike lanes, deliveries, etc, these remain and supplement seating, in some cases requiring enlarged kitchens.  Will they become permanent?  Menus are mostly limited and lack any of the usual specials making dining out more expensive. 

The subway is busy again and only a small minority were wearing masks (including me).  Shops, museums, auction rooms, concert halls and the opera were all less than fully utilised.  Four exceptions were the Paul Allen Christie’s art sale; Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt; The “Tucker Gala” at Geffen Hall; “The Hours” Met opening with Fleming, DiDonato and O’Hara.  Each of these were packed out.  Some Verdi houses were less than 50% full. 

The Met’s season included classics Rigoletto, La Traviata and Don Carlo, each with strong casts and fine productions.  Too many singers to name but outstanding were Peter Mattei as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa and Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto.  Tenors Stephen Costello (Alfredo) and Benjamin Bernheim (Duke of Mantua) also gave very fine performances.  Equally limited audiences for Peter Grimes (with ‘our’ Nicole Car and Aussie conductor Nicholas Carter).  Fine young Italian soprano Rosa Feola gave a believable version of Gilda in Rigoletto before performing in Giordano’s rarity Fedora later in the season.  Even Tosca in November was poorly attended – and I heard that there were ‘give-away’ seats for $50 in prime locations available for most performances. 

It was a great pleasure to return to the city for many other cultural outings.  These included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, LAX Trio at the Caspary Hall, Mendelssohn at Carnegie Hall, Korngold, Haydn, Mozart and much more. 

After glorious autumn weather we had a cold snap at the end of November but nothing to compare with the current December snow bomb affecting much of the country.  

Happy New Year to all my faithful readers.  Please let me know if these notes are surplus to your needs. 

Written by Andrew Byrne ..


21 July, 2022

Il Trovatore – Verdi – Sydney Opera House 15th July 2022

This was the third production for the Sydney winter season after Madama Butterfly and La Traviata (which I see later).  It was a homecoming for many of us with cruise ships again gracing Sydney Harbour and for our delectation, a full moon rising about 7pm over the harbour giving us back the magic atmosphere denied for so long due to Covid.  The moon has special relevance in this opera, too. 

It has been said that Il Trovatore requires four of the best singers in the world … and we had four capable principals, even if the tenor seemed very slightly off colour for two brief moments in the first half.  He also lacks modulation of his powerful delivery, occasionally going soft for a few bars then returning to forte voce seemingly at random.  In some ways opera is like a tight-rope walk and we are all the cliff-top spectators!  The fifth voice of David Parkin needs commendation as Ferrando who starts the action in fine basso form. 

As Leonora, American soprano Leah Crocetto certainly had all the notes and acted creditably despite being given some very unflattering costumes.  Our Azucena was Elena Gabouri who had both the lows and the highs in abundance.  Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee has thrilled audiences around the world’s great opera houses and he succeeded again as Manrico for his Sydney audience.  Belarusian baritone Maxim Aniskin played the evil Count di Luna with aplomb.  Like Scarpia in Tosca it is hard to like the man.  His Il balen aria was magnificent. 

This production was yet another in the series using mobile pixilated screens with an infinite range of coloured panoramae.  The genre started with The Ring in New York over ten years ago when the biggest screen was the size and shape of a child’s see-saw.  Now we have screens which are a couple of metres across and the height of the proscenium.  The video flexibility is so vast that no director can leave them still for very long.  In my view the scenery should largely remain unchanged during one aria, a chorus or an overture, so as not to distract from the vocal drama.  If we don’t understand the Italian we can follow the story from English titles … and stories of a burned baby hardly need the reinforcement of foetal skeletal images all over the stage. 

The opera chorus and orchestra under Maestro Battistoni performed superlatively, even though the ‘anvil chorus’ had no anvils … or even ‘cat like treads’ for that matter.  The singing was superlative.  Other boxes to tick include Ah si ben mio, Di quella pira, Miserere, Stride la vampa plus the shocking final scene with unexpected throat slashing. 

‘Trovatore’ or troubadour has a specific historical meaning being poets, musicians, dancers and philosophers of a bygone era in the west Pyrenees region and adjacent areas.  Being less serious about the art we were presented with an entire circus whose connection with the actual Troubadour was hardly important.  Clowns, acrobats, weidos, tympani, etc paraded on stage rather than the usual band of gypsy bandits.  Even the word ‘gypsy’ is now politically incorrect and fairly so considering all the negative connotations.  ‘Romani’, while of Indian origin, have a wide diaspora yet kept their identities both by being side-lined from mainstream society and suffering as a consequence right up to the Nazi period and beyond.  For Verdi’s purposes they were an exotic community whose friction with the establishment causes so many moments of high tension for his glorious music.  Our monastery where Leonora was to take her vows is now a hospital and the nuns all nurses tending sick patients who find themselves in a war zone.  A bit like hospitals nowadays. 

Much can be said about this production and people will either like it or hate it.  I don’t much care for the extent of the constantly changing backdrops and movement of the pixilated pillars.  But to hear fine voices in one of the great operas is a privilege we appreciate all the more due to its long absence during Covid.  Uniquely in this production Azucena stabs the count after slashing his neck as the curtain falls.  This prevents Di Luna’s immense regret after learning that he has just killed his very own brother!  Hence her mother’s death at the stake is avenged and there is yet another body left on stage. 


Written by Andrew Byrne ..

Some fine singing on this excerpt from the opera:  

Verdi: Il Trovatore (The Royal Opera) - YouTube



30 May, 2022

Pinchgut Opera, Orontea by Cesti 26/5/22. Wonderful fun!

Dear Colleagues,  

From its premier in Innsbruck in 1656, Cesti’s Orontea became one of the most popular operas of the time.  And why?  Because sex sells!  This opera contains gentle wooing, scenes of headstrong amorous moves and raunchy bedroom frolics.  And it is all in the text - which was projected as English titles to the sung Italian.  Pleasingly the entire libretto was also in the program.  Given a brilliant book by his second generation playwright Cicognini, Cesti adds melody, original orchestration, arias and duets to move the new art of opera ahead several steps.  

This performance proves that good opera does not require big casts, large orchestra or even a traditional proscenium stage.  The cut-down orchestra of 9 members made for a wonderful continuo using traditional 17th century instruments.  Each of the ten singers had substantial and interesting voices and all were tasked with portraying serious dramatic development in the complex tragi-comic plot.  The two non-singing roles were also crucial to the drama … the muse cupid, played by Ryan Smith, being on stage for the entire performance, even hanging from a high trapeze before the audience had filed in.  He grinned continuously at his hapless amorous victims while also doing cartwheels amongst his other complex choreography.  

Anna Dowsley played our heroine superbly, at first aloof to love then as involved as everyone else.  Jonathan Abernethy played the desirable but apparently lowly born artist Alidoro who conveniently travels with his mother Aristea (Dominica Matthews) from the Phoenician court.  

Playing the drunk is one of the challenges of the stage and basso Andrew O’Connor pulled off this feat with aplomb.  He handled at least 20 bottles of wine during the performance, taking a solo dreaming sleep scene in total control while seemingly severely drunk.  And amongst his fine deep basso singing he also hit two forte falsetto notes which would have shamed many a coloratura soprano!  And there were other ‘party tricks’, even a sailor-boy strip scene, double couple coitus interruptus and more.  

We welcomed the return of bass David Greco as Creonte.  He may be the only member of cast who is remotely sensible, reflecting on events worldly.  His brother Matthew is, in real life, first violinist and a permanent fixture of the company.  

The part of Corindo was written for a castrato. I was pleased that the company chose not to automatically use a counter-tenor.  None of us will ever know for sure the sound that castrati made but it is unlikely to be like what we hear from most counter-tenors today.  Douglas Kelly sang and acted a fully believable lover with his fine tenor voice and matching physique.  

For those who are followers of G&S, this opera plot has the essence of Patience at the start and HMS Pinafore at the end.  There is also a sense of the ‘Slave of Duty’ from Pirates as well in the Queen’s resolve.  ‘Nothing is new in the world’.  

The sets and settings were many and varied but piece de resistance perhaps was when the rear curtains opened to reveal a part-finished tableau ready for royalty’s likeness.  Our artist hero had palette in hand with his model Silandra in amorous mood painting each other’s bodies in ecstasy.  The rival, Queen Orontea then makes a dramatic entrance by slashing through the unfinished canvas to catch the lovers and claim her own prize, the ever desirable and desired Alidoro.  

Pinchgut ‘prime mover’ Maestro Erin Helyard received a huge ovation along with his bespoke orchestra and talented cast.  

Highly recommended if you can get a ticket.  

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

 Andrew's Opera (

04 April, 2022

Maria Stuarda at the Sydney Opera House Fri 25th March 2022

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS - Olga Peretyatko

ELISABETH I - Carmen Topciu

TALBOT - Richard Anderson

LEICESTER - Valerio Borgioni

 Conducted by Renato Palumbo

 This was a splendid outing of a Donizetti ‘Queen’ opera (the other two being Roberto Devereux and Anna Bolena).  It was the first time I have seen an opera ‘in concert’ in the opera theatre (1500 seats).  Many have been performed in the Concert Hall (2700 seats) which is currently nearing completion of major renovations. 

 It is such a pleasure to arrive at the glorious Sydney Opera House, mingle on the terrace with a glass of wine and attend a top cultural event after 2 years of stop-start Covid seasons.  We had almost a year in Sydney when we pretended Covid did not affect us, cut off as we were from the rest of the world.  Now the state of NSW is having up to 20,000 cases daily of what seems like a minor illness for most (Omicron variant).  At the same time New York City is having less than 1000 for reasons that are still not completely clear.  The logistics of daily RAT testing for orchestra, chorus, etc must be tedious and costly.  Masks are worn all round except when drinking or blowing an instrument (or singing!). 

 Back to the opera which I know and love mainly due to Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau’s wonderful recording with Pavarotti as Leicester. We also had a Sydney production in 1997 with Deborah Riedel and Amanda Thane.  It was originally intended for two sopranos yet the opening had mezzo Malibran singing and often one or other role is still sung by a mezzo-soprano.  The two queens exchange some of the nastiest insults imaginable as they almost tear each other’s eyes out in their out-door meeting (which historically never actually happened – but remember, this is opera!).  So bad is the regal language that the opera was banned in Naples which may be one reason it has never risen to the popularity of Lucia di Lammermoor, Elixir of Love or Fille du Regiment.  Also, despite lots of wonderful melodies, choruses and dramatic encounters, none of its arias has become a show-stopper.  Nor does it have cleverly lifted tunes which we find in Roberto Devereux (English National Anthem) and Anna Bolena (Home Sweet Home by Henry Bishop). 

 The star of our Sydney performance was Romanian mezzo Carmen Topciu with a large and expressive voice, breath control and stage presence as QE I.  Ms Peretyatko also sang well as Mary, keeping her final magnificent scena for her best.  As in act I of Lucrezia Borgia the soprano is required to sing a legato high note continuously for many bars while the chorus sings andante, then to do a forte run.  Very impressively and authentically done on this occasion as she heads for the block.  Mr Borgioni has a voice more suited to this part than Pavarotti ever did and he made beauty of the difficult tessitura and believable the drama of his place in the royal love triangle.  Mr Anderson is the local go-to basso and he did not disappoint in his major role as Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.  Maestro Palumbo and his orchestra gained a well deserved round of applause, as did the company chorus. 

 Again it is a privilege to hear such quality opera so near to home for Sydney-siders and I noted numerous visitors from out-of-town for this rare spectacle.  Even rarer was the opening night of Phantom of the Opera on a pontoon on Sydney Harbour across Farm Cove from us.  Obligingly the noisy Phantom fireworks occurred during our intermission.  Andrew Lloyd Webber was in town to supervise the first time his musical has been performed in the great out-doors. 

 Notes by Andrew Byrne .. recently retired doctor from Redfern via Bowral. 

 Andrew's Opera (


Ours was a concert performance, very cleverly lit from above with slick 

23 March, 2022

La Juive – Halevy, Sydney Opera House Sat matinée 12th March 2022

 Rachel – Natalie Aroyan

Eleazar – Diego Torre

Leopold (Samuel) – Francisco Brito

Princess Eudoxie – Esther Song

Cardinal de Brogni – David Parker

Conductor – Carlo Montenaro

 Here is a rare opportunity to see a 19th century Paris opera masterpiece in an enjoyable and original production with an exceptional cast.  Like a score of other composers this was one magnificent success out of many other failures (40 according to one source I read). 

 Although there is much, much more, opera fans must wait four acts to finally hear the famed tenor aria “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” in which Eleazar laments that after devoting his life to Rachel from the cradle he now he must deliver her to the executioner.  La Juive is a complex and harrowing story, not as consistent or profound as Merchant of Venice but with lots of twists and turns.  More than once a Jew turns out to be a gentile.   

 After big choral scenes, Latin mass extracts and dramatic revelations, the big tenor aria was sung with pathos and passion by Mr Torre (the short, racy but rarely performed cabaletta was omitted).  In the silence before act 5 there was a massive thump as about twenty clumps of shoes fell from height onto the full width of the stage.  It was one of the most shocking and unexpected ‘stunts’ I have seen on stage.  Due to their silvery grey colouring it was not immediately clear what the items comprised, at least from my seats in the front row of the circle.  Yet shoes they were, one of numerous reminders of the holocaust which was brewing in the period of this staging in 1930s France. 

 This story of religious devotion and prejudice is complex and sometimes contradictory.  At least three cast members are not who they seem to be.   But this is opera and each scene has strong characters in emotive situations with glorious lyrical vocals from huge Christian choruses to intimate farewells. 

 One reason this opera is so rarely performed is that there are two soprano parts, one dramatic and one coloratura.  Although written originally with Eleazar as a bass Halevy rewrote the part for the tenor so there are two big tenor roles as well.  Prince Leopold was ably played by Argentine Francisco Brito whose upper register rang out well both as the Prince and when dressed up to be the Jewish painter Samuel.  Local soprano Esther Song played Princess Eudoxie admirably.  David Parkin rose to the occasion at the Cardinal with some spare resonating low notes to his register. 

 Ms Aroyan, also a local, sang and acted with distinction, honourable to her father and her religion right to her immolation at the end when all is revealed just too late to save her (real) father’s anguish.  But this is opera.  As Bugs Bunny says: “Did you really expect a happy ending?”  What’s Opera Doc on Vimeo

 Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

 Aria y Cabaletta de Eleazar: Rachel quand du seigneur. - YouTube

 Neil Shicoff, tenor. Simone Young, conductor.  Vienna 1999. [cabaletta: ‘Dieu m’eclaire, fille chère’] 


10 March, 2022

Otello, Verdi, Sydney Opera House, Sat 19th Feb 2022. Follow-up notes.

 Dear Colleagues,

 My brief notes on Otello did not do justice to the piece which is one of the greatest works written for the operatic stage.  After further thought and some reading I offer the following observations about this work which I did not enjoy on first seeing it many years ago.  Leo Schofield used to distinguish the more ‘accessible’ works from those which were more profound yet less immediately appealing to some. 

Regarding The Moor of Venice I am now a devoted convert to both play and opera.  Discussion about Iago’s devious motivations, evidence, plot, history, etcetera goes on endlessly amongst experts … yet the basic theme of love, suspicion, jealousy and revenge are the relentless focus of this piece.  Boito’s libretto was such that they fully intended the opera to be called ‘Iago’ until the last stages of their collaboration when Verdi pushed for a return to ‘Otello’. 

The supposed rivalry between Wagner and Verdi was largely a fiction.  Born in the same year 1813, each rose to the top of their respective national schools of opera.  Furthermore both aimed at the perfect musical and vocal drama in their operas.  Living longer, Verdi came out of retirement at least twice to compose and revise 4 or more operas, Otello being second last to Falstaff, Verdi’s only mature comedy. 

Leitmotifs occur throughout Wagner’s operas yet Otello contains just one to my observation.  Otello’s love theme (or ‘another kiss’ as I call it) recurs three more times after its introduction in the act I love duet.  While many of Wagner’s musical motifs may go over the head of the average audience member, few would miss Verdi’s melody which is unmistakably linked to the love between Desdemona and Otello.  A similar device is used by Donizetti in Lucia di Lammermoor, another love theme which returns briefly but unmistakably in the Mad Scene. 

Boito was one of the very few composers who also wrote libretti (his revolutionary Mefistofele was first presented at La Scala in 1868).  He joins Wagner, Berlioz and Leoncavallo but uniquely, Boito also collaborated with others in successful operas.  His reduced version of Shakespeare’s Othello became a perfect foil for the elderly but enthusiastic Verdi. 

This brings us to the origin of the story which appears to be Cinthio’s 1565 ‘Un Capitano Moro’ (or “Disdemona and the Moor”) a short story which had not been translated into English until after Shakespeare’s time.  Along with many other pieces of evidence including the naming and feminist sentiments of Emilia in Othello, this has led some recent commentators to question whether William Shakespeare was presenting plays and sonnets originating from the pen of Emilia Lanier Bassano.  This fascinating woman came from a large Jewish musical family from northern Italy, several of whose members had been in the service of the court of Henry VIII.  See Atlantic article by Elizabeth Winkler Who Was Shakespeare? Could the Author Have Been a Woman? - The Atlantic

Now that should get people a-talking! 

Notes written by a still a-learning Andrew Byrne ..

22 February, 2022

Otello, Verdi, Sydney Opera House, Sat 19th Feb 2022.

 Otello – Yonghoon Lee

Desdemona – Karah Son

Iago – Marco Vratogna

Cassio – Virgilio Marino

Emilia – Sian Sharp

Roderigo – Hubert Francis

Montano – Andrew Moran

Lodovico – Richard Anderson

Herald – Andrew Williams


Dear Colleagues,

This was a magnificent return to the serious opera house after a plague-ridden period nobody wants repeated.  Harry Kupfer’s steep-stepped production has grown on me over the years.  It was conducted by rising Maestro Andrea Battistoni from Verona. 


For my overseas readers: By isolating from the rest of the world most of Australia avoided the pandemic for over a year.  From May 2020 to June 2021 NSW had either zero or single figure daily Covid cases, mostly in localised clusters associated with foreign arrivals.  Sydney even had an opera season of sorts while overseas houses were closed.  However, from mid-June 2021 we were struck with the delta and then the omicron Covid variants, plunging us in with the rest of the world for another six months. 


By January we were using frequent testing, shorter quarantine periods and a reduction in the severity and duration of the individual infections, especially in younger people were noted.  As a result, authorities recommended a return to normal life, schools reopened, offices, cafés and restaurants, etc were doing some normal business.  Since January a brave opera company has now put on La Boheme, Turandot, Nozze di Figaro and Otello.  Just today, overseas tourists can enter Australia freely for the first time in 2 years!!  25 flights are to land at Sydney airport today alone!  Welcome, World! 


This performance had the benefit of world-renowned tenor Yonghoon Lee who sang the socks of this gigantean role (as he had done in Turandot earlier in the season).  His singing was more nuanced that his hugely declamatory Calaf.  Desdemona was also Korean Karah Son sang with the style and dignity required.  She occasionally had momentary difficulty with long, high legato notes yet never petered out.  As Marilyn Horne once said: “OK, so you got phlegm; get over it!”  Our Iago Marco Vratogna was sufficiently evil both dramatically and vocally.  The duets were thrilling.  As was his Credo.  Cassio was under-cast compared to the substantial voices of the other three principal singers.  The other supporting roles and chorus were all excellent, each managing to perform on a huge staircase the full width of the stage (one remembers Joan Sutherland on a similar perilous staircase in Merry Widow!).  But no bed for the final Kupfer scene was just plain odd. 


The audience wore masks throughout and it was about 75% capacity.  The performance received huge applause for orchestra and at the final curtain.  It was so nice to see life returning to something like normal. 


For my own case it will be very different as I closed our addiction clinic after 38 years last weekend.  I will just see occasional dependency patients in the future and hope to do some research.  I will take in the last few weeks of the Met season in New York in May all being well with travel, viruses, weather events, wars and other global challenges. 


Best wishes to all my patient readers (you must be patient to have got this far!). 


Andrew Byrne ..