Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

Pinchgut – winter festivities

June 20, 2017

Pigmalion curtain call

I went on Saturday afternoon to the second and on Tuesday night to the last performance of Pinchgut Opera’s triple bill:

Rameau Anacréon (libretto by Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard)
Vinci Erighetta e Don Chilone (libretto by Vinci)
Rameau Pigmalion (libretto by Ballot de Sauvot)

I had picked up at the last minute two restricted view seats  – on opposite sides for obvious reasons.

Erighetta e don Chilone was a genially amusing (if not quite side-splitting) two-hander for Taryn Fiebig and Richard Alexander.  It’s a Neapolitan piece from the 1720s so stylistically think Pergolesi, who apparently studied with Vinci.  I enjoyed it though the business with a book (apparently it was meant to be a play within a play and a read-through at that) didn’t really add much for me.

The two Rameau works are both Actes de ballet.  Dance is a big element of them.  That is always a bit tricky because our modern tastes for dance and, I venture to say, the significance we attach to it, are probably not the same as in the original context.  Or maybe not so different.  Pigmalion, where there was actual dancing, managed this more successfully;  Anacreon was a bit busy and the resort to rhythmic movement as a substitute for dancing always feels a bit lame.

It’s said in such texts as I found in fragments on the web (or at least some of them) that Pigmalion is Rameau’s most successful work in this genre.  On Saturday, Anacreon had the advantage with me because (as I later realised) I have repeatedly listened to a chunk of it as part of a very old Les Arts Florissant compilation set of CDs.  By Tuesday, Pigmalion prevailed. I also felt that stylistically it was the more successfully realised.

I’m not a critic, so no roll call and just nice remarks.

Lauren Zolezzi, L’Amour in both works (first a kind of feminine Cupid in something rather like Con High uniform and then more adult and in masculine attire a la Cherubino) was probably the newcomer of the night.

In the orchestra, the violins were in fine form – how standards have risen over the years in the early music biz here in Oz!  Leader Matthew Greco played up a storm, especially in a very striking solo in the Vinci. I only noticed one tiny suspect moment in the oboes, which also is a sign of progress in the reliability stakes over the years though perhaps the parts in these works were not the most demanding or exposed.  Both of the Rameau pieces reserved particular moments of poetry for the flutes, and these were delectable.

The fast section of the Pigmalion ouverture includes what I can only describe as a particularly mind-blowing double hemiola system .

I don’t find it so easy to get worked up for an afternoon performance. I’m sure that on Tuesday I was in a more receptive mood than on Saturday. But there is also much to be said for what you can get out of something the second time around, provided of course that it is something that bears repetition.

On Tuesday I enjoyed the program very much.

[Picture from Pinchgut Facebook: I’m in there somewhere.]

Temporary postscript: for the next 3 or so weeks the performance broadcast on Sunday night can be heard from the ABC “Classic” FM website here.




An opera-lover writes

February 23, 2017

My friendship with ST was forged in the mid 1980s at Newtown taxi base over our shared interest in opera and classical music.  In fact we had been students together a few years earlier in the Arts faculty at Sydney Uni and were in some common courses.  He was a slightly older student and shy and retiring; I was a bit of a youthful show-off.  So he already knew who I was.

ST devoted much more energy to the opera than I did.  I was a weekend night driver.  ST drove nights full-time – doubtless with some nights off to go to the opera though I wouldn’t put it past him to have sometimes left his cab for the duration of a performance.  A fellow barrister who in an earlier life doubled up cab driving with gigs as an opera extra tells me he used to leave his cab at the rank and slip in to do his stint as an animal in The Magic Flute.  Things were more relaxed in those now-olden days.

ST naturally knew when the opera came out on any given night and if he was nearby he would be there to work the Opera House rank.  Over the years he overheard quite a few conversations between company members who might have been more discreet if they’d realised how well-informed their driver already was.

ST gave up opera-going about eight years ago when he devoted himself totally to the care of his mother. She died in the middle of last year.

After allowing for a period of grieving, this summer season I tried to coax ST back to the opera.  The following, with one omission as indicated, is his response:

Greetings & Happy St Scholastica’s Day.

I’m not exactly fired up for recondite musical tableaux at the moment so I may end up giving the Polish offering a miss.  Not sure I know either Honeyman or Gore so that angle doesn’t help either [….] Even checking the brochure for dates enrages me as I see the highly good-natured, not to say personable in any of its misapplications, Jonas Kaufmann so misused, indeed abused, on its cover.

In Spring I was all for “Come back Moffatt, all is forgiven” but am currently reading his book, or at least constantly dropping off (after sleepless nights) over its pages.  Many productions go past with no mention at all, even singers like Eva Marton are completely ignored BUT there were EIGHT productions in the Concert Hall, the most surprising for me being Otello & Romeo & Juliette – why none this year?  The SSO has ‘squeezed’ dates before and one-offs should use the State.  Britten was sometimes used to ‘double’ Concert Hall shows & except for Dream they would all fit in the State,  There was much less destroyed in the Ultimo fire than I thought, so sex up some Kalmans, Lehars & Sullivans & use the Royal.  The opera theatre’s been closed before for Summer!  Mastersingers, Don Giovanni and Boheme have been done in English!  Grace was here in 1991 (recession time!) for Turandot. I can’t believe it – did I see her live?!  If I need to calm down I boil the kettle & recall that there’s a recital of Rachmaninov & Mussorgsky at Angel Place – but in the mid 70s there was a whole series of recitals in the Opera Theatre – the youth crowd getting Ewer & John Winther.  Cheers.

It doesn’t look as though he will be going back.


Last nights at the opera

February 23, 2017

Last Saturday night to Opera Australia’s La Traviata.

This production dates from 1994 or so.  It used to return roughly every three years.  Under the present management it has been returning every second year, and there’s been a Traviata on the harbour as well.

My friend, Ub, with whom I last went to this production in 2015, had been on Thursday.  “That woman’s amazing!” she told me.  She meant Ermonela Jaho , who was Violetta.  Ub was right: it was an amazing performance, and elicited a standing ovation from a full house which it is fair to say had probably come to see her.  Is it quibbling to ask if it crossed the line between acting and over-acting?  High-voltage acting is a bit like playing loud and fast, it mostly pleases.  If Violetta were really a woman who lived so much on the edge, why should the assembled party-goers be so shocked when Alfredo throws the money at her feet?

This was Jaho’s last performance for this run.  Maybe it is also the last time I need see this production, usually referred to as a “Moshinsky” production though I’d say a very big part of the credit goes to Michael Yeargan’s terrific sets.  The costumes are also good but it’s the set which really makes it.

As I’m not a critic I shan’t do a roll-call of the cast, other than to say that Ho-Yoon Chung was fine as Alfredo if a little mousey at first – hard for him to measure up against such a woman on the edge as Violetta.  What could she have seen in him?

Jose Carbo is still not for my money nasty enough as Germont.  Well, when I say nasty, I mean an insidious kind of sanctimoniousness.  I know the story requires him eventually to respect Violetta, but surely that’s only after she has agreed to do what he wants, and any sweetness before that need only be by way of persuasion.  After all, he does tell Violetta that her looks will fade and then because she is not married to Alfredo naturally he will leave her. That’s not very nice even if, were one to take the story seriously, it could hardly pose much of a threat to a woman dying of consumption (though she seemed to be doing better during her months in the country).

Footage on Youtube of a previous outing of this production shows three becostumed bullfighters who are dancing extras in Act II Scene ii.  We only had one who was banished to the back of the stage like a lost pony.  The dancing is the one point when the production flags a bit. To an extent that is inherent in the work: we need a bit of time to pass and the party atmosphere needs to be established before it can be disrupted.  I could easily get this scene mixed up with Act IV of Manon.

Violetta threw (and smashed) a glass in Act I.

There wasn’t very much if any of the blood-spotted handkerchief- more persistent coughing in the audience than on stage – well two persistent and more noisy than evidently ill shockers.  At the end I found I half-expected Alfredo to sing something over the final chords – “Mimi!” maybe?

On the Wednesday before I went to the last night of King Roger.  That made four times altogether.  In other operas I have seen four times in the one run – Masked Ball, Simon Boccanegra – the fourth time has been a bit of an anticlimax.  That wasn’t the case for KR because I was still on a learning curve and there was so much to get out of the music – especially the orchestration.  There was so much going on.

The house was pretty well full, though the tell-tale queue at the Opera Australia service desk before hand showed that the free-list were well in attendance.  Earlier performances had not been so full and I think there is something in Stuart Skelton’s criticism that when OA puts on a modern or difficult work it just sits back and waits for the the audience to come.  (That link includes a response/refutation by OA of some of his points, but I’d say you have to watch out for the fine print in that.)

Late in January I went with D to Cav and Pag.  I’ve left it too long to make any really detailed comments about it. I remember thinking that one was much stronger than the other but ironically I cannot now remember which.  Of course I enjoyed them, how could you not?

I wasn’t as moved as I have sometimes been by the intermezzo in Cav, and I wonder if that is because of all the business that was going on.

Diego Torres took both tenor roles more than creditably.

Pag is much more “Wagnerian” than Cav – which probably mostly means more lower brass.   Jose Carbo has not effaced my memories of Jonathan Summers whom I saw last time.

D didn’t twig that there was a kind of nightmare sequence going on towards the end.  The price of this and the elaborate parish hall for the play was that the denouement happened a bit further back on the stage and this reduced its dramatic impact.

And that wraps up my Opera-Australia-going for this year.






King Roger

January 29, 2017

Last night to Opera Australia’s production of this work by Szymanowski.  It’s an obscurity: the recording that I was able to borrow from the Con library was made in Warsaw in 1965 – I suspect in association with a concert performance rather than a staged performance.

The opera is set in Sicily at the time of the Norman King Roger.  The libretto contains very detailed stage directions for first a Byzantine church, secondly the King’s palace and thirdly an ancient Greek amphitheatre by the sea: it is clear that Szymanowski was inspired by specific locales experienced by him when chasing the sun and (presumably) a Sicilian lad or two.  This production ditches all that and instead makes plain that the action is pretty much all inside the protagonist’s head: a massive head (front exterior view, then rear internal view) and, for the third act, a stylised “amphitheatre” which seems more like the Coliseum turned inside out than any Greek model.

That means that the music carries the exoticist burden.  It’s meant to be in three different flavours – almost one for each act, but once the orchestra started playing (everything starts in the dark with some gong strokes and a quasi-Orthodox church choir) I can’t say that the differences struck me so much as a tremendous kind of dream world.  It was rich stuff.  The text books talk about Scriabin and Stravinsky but mostly I felt reminiscences of Pelleas & M.  Orchestration is luscious and complicated – I spotted the double basses having a little confab at the end which suggests there are still some details to iron out.

Michael Honeyman was particularly impressive in the title role.

Bachtrack and Limelight carry the most comprehensive reviews (freedom from print means freedom from word limits) so I will leave the rest of the critical work to them. Good luck finding those $23 tickets Clive Paget talks of in the latter.

House was maybe 75%, with some conspicuous gaps in the expensive areas. Nevertheless, the sense of engrossment was palpable and applause at the end was enthusiastic.

I sat in a cheap seat on the side and will do so again before finishing off in the front row.  Perhaps by then I will be able to distinguish more between the parts and make more sense of the whole.

It’s something of a coup for OA to mount this production, though that statement must be qualified by the fact that the production has been bought in from Covent Garden, as was the double bill of Cav/Pag which I saw the night before.

At interval, sharing a table with someone who introduced herself as having sat behind me for the last few years at the SSO “Emirates” series, I learnt that about a third of the OA staff were made redundant towards the end of last year – she had a niece who was affected. I guess there’s lots of people you don’t need when you are hardly putting on any operas (eg, in a year when the Opera Theatre went dark, it turns out that about half the time that OA had the Capitol Theatre is being turned over to a final run of My Fair Lady) and most of what you are putting on is either a revival or a “co-production.” Neither of us was enthused by the recent news that Lyndon Terracini’s contract has just been extended for another 3 years.


Opera Australia 2017

August 25, 2016

Opera Australia has announced its 2017 season.  That link foolishly describes OA as “unperturbed” by the closure for 7 months of the Opera House opera theatre, which is clearly not the case.

It’s a pretty devastating announcement, so far as Sydney opera-goers are concerned.  In place of the closed Opera Theatre, OA has only managed to secure the 400-seat Playhouse, in which it will stage a pasticcio operetta, the Concert Hall (for three concert performances of Parsifal with big-name tenor Jonas Kaufmann) and the Capitol Theatre in October-November for an 11-performance run of the venerable Oxenbould production of Madama Butterfly (last seen here in 2015). The only other conceivable alternative venues, such as the Lyric Theatre at the casino or the Theatre Royal (which would really be a squeeze) are themselves affected by closures for renovations next year.

There are also a few other one-off events including a concert performance at the Town Hall of Massenet’s Thaïs.

Apart from the pasticcio, OA is staging no new productions of its own. Two new productions are brought/bought in from Covent Garden. One is a bold gesture: Szymanowski’s King Roger; the other, Cav & Pag. Otherwise, Boheme, Tosca and Traviata are all very recent returns.  The Handa opera-on-the-harbour is a repeat of Carmen.

Things aren’t much better in Melbourne with a run of The Merry Widow making up their summer season, though it is a new production with a homecoming Young Talent Time winner.

It’s obviously a belt-tightening year for OA. Will there be commensurate cuts for the upper management’s salaries? Don’t hold your breath.  I wonder whether the engagement of Kaufmann for Parsifal (one can only guess at the cost of this) is judicious as opposed to a defiant gesture.  Terracini says that people will pay to hear quality voices but even so he expects to lose money on this.  Personally I’d prefer that the money were spread a bit more evenly on employing local artists.  Even an expatriate would be more fitting and probably a bit cheaper whilst still being of interest to many even if not such a headline for the non-opera-going public.

No set subscriptions are being offered next year.  You have to make up your own series. When I tried to do that on the website my seats were assigned to me (never satisfactory) [Postcscipt: a commenter has not had that problem so it seems this was just me] which is odd because once I reached the minimum of 3 different productions to make up a subscription I was able choose your own seats off the seating plan. [I then rang up – it cannot have been an easy day manning the OA phones.]

As for my subscription, I’m keen to see King Roger and prepared to see Cav&Pag on account of the new production.  I’m making up the minimum 3 with a point seat for La Traviata which enables me to bag a couple more point seats for King Roger as well as extra seats for D for KR and C&P.  It will all be over by about the middle of Feb.  That’s a big retrenchment (and saving).

OA boldly suggests that subscribers make up the shortfall of available shows with a donation to their usual level of expenditure.  I suppose they can always ask.  The bigger risk is that people will break the subscribing habit altogether.  With any luck Terracini will then be free of that opera “club” for which he has expressed so much disdain.




August 7, 2016

On Thursday to Opera Australia’s Simon Boccanegra for the fourth time.

There is a kind of law of diminishing returns when you see a work so often in quick succession.  I think the second and third times were my most complete experiences, and on the second I was moved to tears at the appropriate moments.

By the fourth, as I said to Renato Palumbo (the conductor) and Giacomo Prestia (Fiesco) whom I ran into on the train home (I jumped on at St James and there they were! They got off at Museum.) you know too much how it is done.  What I didn’t quite properly explain is that what this mostly affects is the suspension of disbelief and the willingness to go along with the dramatic set-ups – it becomes more about the music and the details.

For example, on a third viewing, George Petean’s dramatic final stage fall didn’t quite so impress me, because I was ready for it and I could see a little through the technique.  (Maybe it was different and not so good, but I doubt that.)

The most well-known aria from this opera is Amelia’s from the beginning of Act I, Come in quest’ora bruna. That’s the one which Opera Australia link to on their web-page (cunningly cross-marketing to Nicole Car’s recording).

That’s an odd aria, not least because of the accompaniment figure in the high winds set against a kind of chugging bass in the low winds.  Nor is it really typical of the opera as a whole or, in my opinion, the best bit.  That’s probably the scene where Boccanegra takes the poison, Adorno resolves to kill him and then changes his mind on learning that Boccanegra is Amelia’s father.  This includes an applause-provoking aria by Adorno as he expresses his jealous rage (when he doesn’t know that SB is Amelia’s father), as well as the moment when SB takes the poison to which I have referred in a previous post.  After Adorno learns that Boccanegra is Amelia’s father, the scene concludes with a trio of reconciliation.  It’s in a slow triple time with triplets – effectively a compound triple time (but with dotted notes giving an expressive edge to this).

At the end of this is, to me, the most moving moment in the opera, sung by Boccanegra (the others join in when he approaches the cadence – that bit is clipped off in this primitive paste-out from the score – and then with the continuation in the second extract below):

SB extract 1

SB Score extract 2

That roughly translates in a word-by-word way as “Let of Italian friendship my tomb be the altar.”

Boccanegra has resolved to spare his would-be-assassin (which we all knew he would because the beloved Amelia is in love with Adorno and also because Adorno, has resiled from his murderous intent) but it’s linked into the big theme (especially in the 1881 rewrite) of Italian unity and the need to rise above historical enmities.  The irony of course is that Boccanegra’s tomb is on its way pretty soon regardless because of the poison but that’s a dramatic irony because none of the characters on stage knows that yet.

The point I’m labouring to make is that the musical materials are very simple (basically just a descending scale over a tenth rising back to the dominant) but it is the context that brings it all together.  It is a very beautiful moment and I have hardly been able to get it out of my head since – except, perhaps, when some of the other ear-worms (such as the Alarmi which follows just after) have crept to the surface.

OK, enough already.

It would be greedy and extravagant to go again.  I sensed that Palumbo and Prestia were bemused to learn that I had been even four times.  What they probably don’t realise is that here in Sydney we have to take our chances when they come.

House was maybe a bit better than previous weeknight performances though not by as much as one would desire.  Natalie Aroyan is growing into the role of Amelia.




Cunning plan

August 1, 2016

I’m going again to Simon Boccanegra because Opera Australia has marked down the two front rows of the stalls for this week’s week-day performances to D reserve.  As they are usually B or C reserve, that is a saving of about $50 to $100 –  a (relative) bargain which I found difficult to resist.

Obviously, I approve this small sign of flexibility by OA in the face of empty seats.  My only question is: apart from tragics like me who check the seating plan, who could know there was a bargain to be had?


Orrore! Orrore!

July 31, 2016

Letter M


That’s what Paolo (Warwick Fyfe in Opera Australia’s production) says in Simon Boccanegra when he is forced to curse himself.

It’s also what I thought when I went tonight for the third time and saw a replacement cast sheet for not one artist (Natalie Aroyan) as expected but two.  The second slot was for Michael Honeyman, replacing George Petean in the title role.

I confess I had wondered, when I contemplated the three performances (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) in a row how Petean would manage.  It’s a big sing  – and there will have been a dress rehearsal not far behind that as well.

The lot of an understudy/cover can be a thankless one.  After the initial disappointment, Michael Honeyman grew on me.  He couldn’t match Petean’s gasp-inducing stage fall at the end, and he was better at the stentorian moments than the lyrical, but he deserved the warm reception he received at the end.

Amusingly, the poisoned glass was broken when Diego Torres sank an impassioned dagger into the table on which it awaited Boccanegra after being baited by Paolo (Fyfe) and fell to the floor. Mr Honeyman had to come in with a fresh glass. Properly, this should have called for a total rewrite of the ending of the opera.

In the pit, there was also a bit of covering going on: Katherine Lukey and Catalin Ungureanu stepped up to the front violin desks instead of Jun Yi Ma and Huy-Nguyen Bui.  (There had been a matinee performance of Così.)  I don’t know if it was a coincidence or a matter of third-time lucky/better, but the first violins definitely made a better fist of the moment extracted above than in the first two performances.


June 27, 2016

On Sunday night to Pinchgut’s production of Haydn’s Armida.

I’m on a bit of a frugality spree at present. Unless I missed it Sunday’s was the only performance where they opened the third level with C reserve (but still $90) seats.  Better deals have been available in previous years.

The story is perhaps not on a theme calculated to excite modern sympathies: it treats the struggle, mostly within Rinaldo, between the call of martial duty (he is a crusader) and the snares of erotic temptation (he is bewitched by the Saracen sorceress, Armida). How exactly this is resolved, at least as a matter of detail, remained a bit of a mystery to me in this production. Basically, as Rinaldo extricated himself from the spell, Almida, always manipulative, became more and more nasty and ghoul like. Rachelle Durkin was Almida; Leif Aruhn-Solen was Rinaldo. Janet Todd impressed as Almida’s offsider.

In the first act, perched high up on the side, I was a bit too close to the mechanism to really be taken in by the plot: it ended with a big duet for the principal pair though rather a lot of it homophonic in thirds and sixths. Drama picked up in the second act in which the finale, oddly enough, included a portent of Beethoven’s Ninth. The music and the production aligned dramatically in the last Act, where Rinaldo confronted Almida’s magic and destroyed the myrtle tree which was its source.  The last act, for me, was where, musically (though there had been good bits before) Haydn really pulled everything together/out of the hat.

The orchestra was great, despite mishaps in the oboe section from time to time.

I really enjoyed it.  If I were feeling richer I would definitely rock up again on Tuesday for the final performance, but some restraint needs to be exercised.

On the opening of this production it was announced that Antony Walker is stepping down as co-artistic director of Pinchgut. The writing has been on the wall for a while about this in terms of the publicity and the pattern of who does what and what works are chosen.   Usual things are said about Walker concentrating on his other commitments in Pittsburgh and Washington, but I can’t help thinking that Walker may have been elbowed aside just a bit by co-AD Erin Helyard, who now takes the helm on his own.

At a nearby Justin Hemmes establishment, Opera Australia was holding its 300-person 60th anniversary bash.  Minions encountered in Angel Place recounted that Taryn Fiebig was to sing “Mack the knife” as the assembled benefactors and bigwigs tucked into their dinners.  Heaven forfend that they should be put off their food by anything more typically operatic.




June 20, 2016

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The opera is back in town!  It’s a sadly short 2-month season before the theatre goes dark in mid-August for them to get ready for My Fair Lady, opening on 30 August.

On Saturday night to Opera Australia’s new production of Carmen, directed by John Bell.  The set is by Michael Scott-Mitchell and the costumes by Teresa Negroponte.  Andrea Molino conducted.

The house was as full as I have ever seen it in recent years: even the third level boxes were populated.

Molino was lurking beneath the lip of the pit and with a preparatory gesture from his hiding place leapt to the podium to bring the overture to life. This drew applause when the up-tempo section came to what the audience judged to be the finish though the dramatic heart-beat thumping cello moment was yet to come.

I sometimes forget how utterly delightful it is to soak up such glorious music so close up.

The curtain rose on what is becoming Opera Australia’s best choice for the Joan Sutherland stage: what proved to be a single set, set as deep and wide as possible into the stage to create space.

The production has been billed as a Cuban take on Carmen.  That’s to say, a kind of Ruritanian Cuba or do I mean Cuban Ruritania.  It’s not really Cuba, you see, just something like it.

An awful lot of stuff, especially in Acts II and III, seemed to be played for laughs: the cute-as Kombi van for Lillias Pasta’s café, parked in a square (so it was a mystery why Zuniga needed to knock on a door when he turned up);  the merry band of smugglers. That’s Carmen’s two ditzy besties, Frasquita and Mercedes, pictured above.  (Opera Australia’s picture.)

Everyone was so busy being funny in the Act II quintet that they couldn’t really keep up with Molino (who had set a cracking pace) and it was just a bit of a mess.

There was lots of colour and movement as there should be for any good musical,  but despite a shift from vaudeville in the final scene I found it hard to take seriously Don Jose’s descent into outlawry or even Carmen’s love of liberty.

It took me a while to get used to Yonghoon Lee’s vocal style as Don Jose – he seemed to be making a lot of noise from rather far back in his mouth, but as the opera went on he drew on reserves of a brighter sound.  His Flower Song elicited what seemed to me the most heartfelt audience response of the night.  Clémentine Margaine as Carmen was also good without any such single moment.

Back in 2014 I was critical of Natalie Aroyan as Micaela.  The things I criticised are both improved/fixed.

I probably don’t really want to see Carmen as often as Opera Australia seems determined to put it on, but I still had a very pleasurable time.