Nights at the Opera [House]


Last week (probably by now the week before last) to the Opera House three times.

On Tuesday, to the first night of Anna Bolena.  On Wednesday with D to Madama Butterfly (sorry, Madama B F Pinkerton!) and on Saturday to the SSO with violinist Vadim Gluzman and conductor Xian Zhang.

The operas both use the gigantic video screens which first featured in last year’s Aida.  Writing for Time Out, Ben Neutze has described these as  Opera Australia’s big gamble on the future of opera.  Neutze is a fan.  I am less of one.

Is that just reactionary conservatism on my part?  You could call me a Luddite, but the Luddites had good reasons for their attitude, even if we like to think of them as being a bit like Canute commanding the waves. For that matter the Canute story has probably lost its original nuance.

My main objection is a kind of gut reaction: the video screens turn the stage into a very cold space.  Everything ends up seeming a bit nocturnal.  In a way this worked quite well for Anna Bolena, because the story is set in a dark and claustrophobic world of plotting and AB’s terrible fate.

Musically, I found the first half of AB a bit of a squib, especially in the dramatic bits, which lacked punch.  When it came to the big ensemble set pieces, something wasn’t quite there.  Was it because Donizetti had not yet realised the effectiveness of compound time in such scenes? One reviewer suggested that conductor Palumbo’s tempi were too cautious.   Things picked up in the second half.

At the risk of sounding philistine, a fundamental issue for me was that Carmen Topciu, as Jane Seymour, had a stronger voice with more penetrating overtones than did Ermonela Jaho, who has a more “white” voice, as Anna Bolena.  I wonder if this was part of the problem with the big set pieces – though funnily enough it wasn’t a problem in their big duet.

Robert Johnson was, again, the SSO’s loss and the AOBO’s gain as principal horn.  A bit shamefully (if true) the banda (offstage orchestra) was recorded.  It is not easy to make more detailed comment about the orchestra as OA have ceased selling programs and the (expanded) complimentary leaflet does not list the orchestral players, which seems a bit disrespectful.

I’m going again to the final performance.

The use of the video screens in Madam Butterfly was more restrained than the exuberant effort for Anna Bolena.  Graeme Murphy is the director and we had some projected dancers.  I’m averse to this as it always seems insulting to the (relatively) fat singers – rather like the use of implausible models on publicity shots, or the stylized couple in the SSO’s Tristan & Isolde a few years ago.  Once again, things seemed predominantly nocturnal.  There is of course a bridal night and then a long night of waiting in MB, but the day-time bits didn’t seem particularly sunny by comparison.

Nevertheless, the  mis-en-scene when MB sang “One fine day” was very striking indeed.  D, who is more of a traditionalist than I, was unmoved by it.  A friend visiting from Portugal was very impressed by the whole thing, but then, as he admitted, he is an engineer and loves the new.

Karah Son was terrific as Madam B. Opera Australia is scheduling MB almost like a musical, with alternating casts for the big parts (as well as some cast changes throughout the run).

Xian Zhang  is described as Chinese-American and her presence (as well probably as the Beethoven 5th symphony in the second half) seems to have attracted a larger than usual Chinese presence to the SSO.  This might have been an after-ripple from Lang Lang’s appearance the week before (which I missed – not because I dislike his playing, but because I resist on principle the SSO’s imposition of premium prices as being contrary to the historical compact with subscribers.

Gluzman played Prokofiev 2; the Sarabande from the Bach Partita in D minor for an encore.  I know string players love these sarabandes but I’ve never really quite got them or for that any of the slow unaccompanied string suite movements – the miracle of realising the harmony on an essentially melodic instrument seems a bit like a heroic but misplaced effort when if you wanted harmony you could have played a keyboard instrument instead.

I enjoyed Beethoven 5.  First movement was as expected; as expected (for me) the slow movement the best with the celli in fine form.  A reviewer complained of ensemble issues in the final movement – I wonder if this was because the trumpets (who feature, Fidelio-finale-ishly) were pushed out to the back corner with the trombones taking the trumpets’ usual spot.  I continue to be impressed by Joshua Batty, the relatively recently appointed principal flute.

Two other observations.

I have not noticed this before, but the conductor’s podium in the opera theatre was mounted on springs.  Palumbo conducted mostly from a high stool but would occasionally spring to his feet, at which point the springs would take the force of his jump.  I suppose this is to mute the noise of such conductorly leaps, but I wonder that it might not be a bit disconcerting – a bit like riding an enormous skate board – or do I mean shuffle board?

My other observation is the increasing zeal with which the opera house management, presumably in the name of security, excludes the public from the outdoor areas at the podium level.

When you leave, staff are stationed at the doors to prevent you leaving at that level.  This makes the egress slower and more crowded as we must all trudge down in close confinement to the box office level  where once so “kettled” the majority of the public elect to take the next set of internal steps down to the unwelcoming ground level space where, before the carpark was built,, unpleasant cattle-truck memories must have been triggered for some as audience members were bussed to the Domain carpark.

Before the concert and at interval, Concert-Hall-goers who wish to go outside are confined to a pocket-handkerchief sized space on the harbour bridge side (apparently to preserve the amenity of the Bennelong Restaurant).  The area between the two shells is dead ground; a slightly larger  space is permitted to Opera-Theatre-goers on the eastern side. On both east and west signs the northern corner is particularly fiercely fenced off. Stern black-clad bearded characters (it is an irony that, as traffic controllers are generally Irish women, Australian security guards in the post 9/11 golden age for their industry are predominantly Muslims) mount guard – against what?  That a few bearded scientists might scale the shells and paint “No War!”?

As I left on Saturday, the  empty front steps from the podium level were festooned with those temporary metal fencelets of which the SOH seems so enamoured, maintaining a perimeter around the two shells and the steps to them.  It was unsightly.  A sign directed patrons of the restaurant  to enter from below via the foyer level.

The podium and the steps are part of the original concept of the SOH.  Even if restrictions on means of entrance are justified on security grounds, it is unclear why we shouldn’t be allowed to leave more freely.  The current limitations are unnecessarily contrary to the SOH’s design  concept.

“I’ll write a letter!” is my stock declaration in such situations.  D only laughs. Sometimes he will beat me to it: “Write a letter!” – Needless to say, few such letters get sent.

I know it would be a waste of time writing to the SOH itself. If I were to write, it would be to the UNESCO world heritage listmeisters.  Just as Dresden lost its listing when it persisted in building a bridge, so should the SOH .

5 Responses to “Nights at the Opera [House]”

  1. wanderer Says:

    I enjoyed the Ben Neutze read. A lot of OA’s reasoning makes sense. Hopefully, there’s an in-between optimum evolving. And I wonder about the opportunity for easy in/easy out LED ‘sets’ in the Concert Hall which would give all the advantages on that venue – number of seats, orchestral size – without ‘blocking’ the hall off for weeks

    The new Ring will be screen sets; you knew that didn’t you. Not that it’s made a cent of difference to the ticket prices.

    We make easy egress from the concert hall by the doors at bar level east side.

    They are obviously different from the security people you mention, but recently the Opera House staff have been very helpful, courteous, and what’s more, everywhere. For the Xian Zhang concert, we were with someone with a walker (yes, you know her) and they were endlessly helpful, getting in, escorted up from box office level, and getting out, escorted internally to the stage door exit, and all without pulling the VIP card out of the pack.

    • marcellous Says:

      I agree that the SOH front of house staff are gold standard when it comes to assisting less mobile patrons – they were great when I had a knee problem 4 years ago, though the general system may have become more difficult since then owing to the greater restrictions on vehicular entrance to the forecourt.

      In general, the security staff are also fine, though recently when I was dressed a little down-marketly at the opera I was challenged (when already inside the perimeter after my ticket had been checked) unnecessarily by one of them when outside on the eastern side.

      If you really mean east side, those doors were closed and guarded on Sat 6/7.

  2. wanderer Says:

    The doors between the two halls.

    • marcellous Says:

      Sorry, they are the eastern ones, you are right – described by my Dulwich Hill friends as being by “the Gooss.” (ie the bust of Eugene, adopted as a post-concert meeting point convenient to making an escape through those doors).
      These doors were closed off on the Saturday. Maybe there was some particular reason for this and there is not a general trend. Meanwhile, I actually have sent a message to UNICEF UNESCO.

  3. wanderer Says:

    Rough crowd that Saturday crowd.

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