Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

Schlock, horror

March 15, 2019

I’ve been to Opera Australia’s revival of Salome three times.

As an opera it is said to be Strauss’s breakthrough work, and together with Elektra, one that took opera up a modernist (more like: Jugendstil) step before Strauss himself stepped back. Yet what impressed me most this time was, especially up to the point where Herod comes onto the stage, how much of the musical material came from Strauss’sprior tone-poems, especially the quasi-Valhalla-ish John the Baptist music and the lower brass of death.  The orientalist exoticism is not particularly outlandish and the meteorologicalism (the wind of the wings of the angel of death) is more a matter of instrumentation.   The most outrageous bit – what I think of as the double-neopolitan, an A7 chord as a meta-dominant in D flat major – is very near the end, though you can’t assume he wrote the work from start to finish.

Strauss writes for an enormous orchestra and because the wind and brass parts can’t easily be reduced (though I saw some substitute pages brought out in the winds near the end), the string complement takes the main hit in order to squeeze into the SOH opera theatre pit.

The limitations of the small stage are met in this case with a single set which doesn’t seem to leave all that much acting area.

There have been criticisms of the production.  They most repeated ones are:

    1. the suicide of Narraboth lacks impact;
    2. Salome gets too physical with John the Baptist;
    3. the “chthonic cistern” (thanks to Peter McCallum for “chthonic”) emits light when the libretto stipulates it is dark.

Other ones are:

4.  Herod says his glass is empty when he hasn’t even got a glass;
5.  The five Jews are instead  a mixture of religions.

At the end Herod orders Salome to be killed.  The executioner brings a knife to her throat. Squeamishly, I was about to shut my eyes but the executioner stayed his hand until the blackout.  Zoltan Szabo confirms my recollection that things went further last time.

For Artshub, David Barmby, described in his bio as former practically everything (though he doesn’t include “chorister at St Andrew’s Cathedral”) , gives the most critical review – all 5 of the above points plus.  He also:

6.  doesn’t like Lindy Hume’s “feminist flip” of Oscar Wilde’s “misogynistic” opera; and
7. Wonders how come Herod et al are feasting in full view of the released Jokanaan when that is against Herod’s strict command? and adds
8. “I could go on.”

As to the  enumerated objections above, my own view is:

  1. Agreed; it’s a bit pathetic; not even a credible dagger;
  2. I don’t mind Salome’s physicality; in fact I like the suggestion that Jochanaan is tempted even a bit.  Incidentally, I love Jochanaan’s make-up six pack! (It’s done with some dark shading on the sides to slim him and some horizontal white bars to synthesise the muscle lines.   He’s quite sexy for a singer, which takes up the libretto statement that he is a young man (as he should be: only a bit older than JC, at this stage not far from Jerusalem).
  3. I take the light emitted from the chth.c. as symbolic of Jochanaan’s  prophecy.  It’s not always on.
  4. Minor: and in this production the suggestion is perhaps that Herod is dazed/deluded after Herodias has slipped the death ring off his finger.
  5. I expect Barmby is right that the expansion of the range of guyed religions is partly an attempt to dodge the Beckmesserish/Alberich-ish anti-semitism of their musical depiction – see, it’s not just Jews.  I too, in 2012, pointed out that the Nazarenes shouldn’t be crossing themselves when we haven’t had a crucifixion yet, so we can all take these points if we must.  I quite liked the attention to individual detail in each of the religious figures – for example in their reactions to the dances.
  6. This time round, I found it worked quite well – and it’s not as if there aren’t hints from the start with Salome complaining about Herod looking at her “like that.”  I was less impressed by it back in 2012.
  7. Too literal.  We can see them, but it’s night and they’re behind a kind of window and show no sign of being able to see out (though later the spectators for the dance take up the same spot)
  8. No comment.

All are agreed that  Lisa Lindstrom is terrific as Salome.  The one spot where something seems to be missing is the lower/mid-register demands for “Gib mir den Kopf des Jochanaan“, but a richer sound might sound less petulant/adolescent and too middle-aged.  Lindstrom gives it a vicious growl the last time before things move into the upper register and back to capital S singing.

The dances are a set of male fantasies of womanhood.  Lindstrom does 1, 4 and 7.  7 is a bit tame (but really is a segue into her easy-wash head-cradling black slip); 1(moppet with teddy bear)  is a great start; using the grill above the cistern as a substitute for the grill above the ventilation shaft for No 4, when she appears as Marilyn Monroe, is a brilliant touch.  The others, shared between 2 real dancers, are (3)- dominatrix pole dancer and (6) Acrobatic scarf dancer who might have wandered in from Shen Yun; and (2) Naughty Maid and (5) Virgin Mary who turns into a go-go dancer with sacred hearts for breast and crotch pieces – which is the best of the lot.

I guess that’s a plot spoiler but too bad.

On the first night my friend MK told me he was in the pit [see comments: actually in the Concert Hall so no pit] as an extra horn player back in 197-something.  He claimed that Marilyn Richardson, as Salome, went “all the way.”  Not that he could see that himself but others in the brass section could.  That might be a bit of an urban myth.  Another friend recalled on the way home that when he went as a youngster (with his mother, natch) she (Marilyn, not his mother) had a body stocking.  That was probably a different occasion.

The issue about the source of Jochanaan’s singing seems to have been solved since 2012 and it plausibly sounded as though it comes from the cistern.

I still find the bit where Herod attempts to dissuade Salome from asking for Jochanaan’s head the weakest point.  It’s hard for the tenor to carry the drama here so I don’t blame Andreas Conrad, who was also pretty good, for that.

I’m not a critic, so I won’t pick out anyone else except for Gennadi Dubinsky.  Because he mostly sings “character bass” parts no-one ever says much about him in reviews.  I always enjoy his vignettes – not only is his singing at a high level in OA terms for often a small part, but there is something really solid about his stage presence.

But back to Barmby.  He accurately diagnoses the problem with the reduced orchestra – but what else does he propose?  I’d rather have an orchestrally reduced Salome than none at all. 

More generally, Barmby complains about a lack of grandeur and spaciousness.  Some of that is the stage for which similar factors apply as to the pit, but I don’t think that’s all he takes exception to.  Barmby writes “Opera Australia’s production team could have done a lot better had they been less focussed on sensational effects.”  That’s a kind of counter-factual isn’t it?  We’ll never know.  How unsensational should a woman kissing the lips of a severed head be?  You could say that it should be able to speak for itself, but  I was happy with the schlock. 




March 9, 2019

This is a belated post.

Opera Australia has just mounted Alban Berg’s c 1920 opera, Wozzeck.  The big selling point has been the direction and characteristic projected animated visuals by superstar artist William Kentridge.  (Actually there is a whole design team involved  but their names can’t really squeeze into the headline.)

I went three times.


First night.  I sat upstairs on the left.  I could see the surtitles and all but the back left and left top corner of the stage.

I was distracted throughout by the noise from the projector mounted not so far from me on the front of the circle which was the source of most of the projections.  From where I sat it was almost as loud as quieter orchestral details which were consequently lost to me.

I struggled to take in action, words, the orchestral commentary in the music and Kentridge’s constantly changing visual commentary.

Kentridge’s visuals are based on an apocalyptic vision of the Western Front in WWI, with dirigibles, aircraft, maps of Bullecourt and frequent invocations of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s up-pointed moustache.

Various reviewers who ought to know better nod seriously and draw a link to Alban Berg’s experience of war horrors in the trenches.

As far as I can tell, Berg’s only military service was training in Hungary in 1915 before he was invalided out.  He was then consigned to a desk job in Vienna.  It was the humiliations of military life in the ranks rather than the horrors of war that he complained about and found a resonance of in Wozzeck.

And what’s all this about the Western Front and the Kaiser?  That’s a bit like reaching for the Hitler toothbrush or the swastika for WWII.  What about Franz Joseph?


On the second night I sat upstairs at the right front corner.  This gave relief from the projector fan and a good sound from the pit at the price of missing out on the surtitles and an overall view of the stage.

Leaving the second performance I overheard a North-American –accented woman saying:

“The one thing I remember about the production I saw which was realistic is the boy at the end.”

In this production, there is no actual child on stage.  Instead, a gas-masked puppet.  Kentridge has justified this with  something not unlike the usual complaints about appearing on stage with animals and children.  But surely Berg put the kiddie in for a reason?  Kentridge doesn’t trust this and wants to run his own concept.  OK, that’s his prerogative but something has been thrown away with the bathwater.


I wanted to give the whole thing another chance where I could be exposed roughly equally to all the elements of the production.  A seat in the middle of the front row for the third night was marked down from B to C reserve.  D has gone to China which meant I could snap it up by exchanging his ticket for Werther.

I couldn’t see the surtitles but I knew the libretto reasonably well, falling back on the gist for some of the more wordy parts such as the Doctor’s lists of medical symptoms or the drunken speechifying/sermons in the tavern scene.  After listening to a recording numerous times and following bits of it in the score, I can’t say I had unravelled all of the mysteries of the various musical forms employed or worked out all the things the commentators find exquisite, but I’d assimilated enough of the musical language and material to be able to respond to more of the threads than when I started.

Ironically, sitting up the front meant that I could focus much more on the singers.  The relative impact of the projections was much less and no longer overweening.  For me they worked much better that way.

The whole thing was utterly compelling.

My favourite scene is the Tavern/Inn/Wirtshaus scene.  Berg writes for the main orchestra, a chamber orchestra (within the main orchestra) and an onstage band  (banda) of  clarinet, fiddles, accordion, guitar and bombardon –which is basically a marching-band version of the tuba. Berg says a tuba may be used provided it can be muted. Part-way through the scene the player is directed to insert the mute.

We had a tuba.  I loved the moment when, instead of an ordinary mute, a pillow was tossed into the bell of the tuba by a fellow inngoer from his would-be-sleeping spot just above.  Turn that music down!

Internet resources:

There is a great little selfie-video of the tuba part here.  (If a mute went in it must be out of shot.)

At the Berlin 1925 premiere, the part of Marie’s son was performed by Ruth-Iris Witting.  Her father, Gerhard Witting, was Andres, Wozzeck’s fellow soldier.  You can hear Ruth-Iris, I’d guess about 8-10  years older and in quite different repertoire, here .


Werther 2019

March 5, 2019

Last night for the third time to Opera Australia’s revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Massenet’s Werther.

There was a time when French opera was more prevalent – I guess because of the cultural prestige of Belle Epoque Paris at the height of opera’s boom years.  My grandfathers’ generation went off to WWI singing funny words to the soldier’s chorus from Faust,  then the most-performed opera at the Met.

Tastes have changed, in the Anglosphere at least.  Apart from Carmen and Australia’s idiosyncratic obsession with The Pearl Fishers, Opra Straya has difficulty enticing audiences to the French repertoire.  So it was that I was able to secure at D reserve prices a spot in the middle of the front row for my third performance.

I’ve seen this production in at least two previous stagings – in 1999 and 2009.  I have a memory of feeling in 1999 that it was familiar, which would mean I also saw it in 1989 or 1990.

At the beginning there is one of the longest-fuse setups ever as for no other apparent reason there is a kind of Christmas-in-July as Charlotte’s father teaches her younger siblings a Christmas carol.  We will hear this again offstage for ironic pathos at the end when Werther returns at Christmas and kills himself.  Act I also sets up the domestic idyll which on the one hand so attracts Werther to Charlotte and the conformity to which by Act II he is a doomed outsider.

At the second interval on the first night I found myself between 2 older (than I) women. Each fumed – B, to my left, at the choice of work and the other worthier works therefore overlooked, but also at the production (“wasting my time”); the other at the “stilted acting.”

I tried not to let it dampen my own enjoyment.  Massenet’s music is so agreeable.  I think of him as being a later equivalent of Schubert or Rossini (and lesser lights of that period) composers who have at their disposal a kind of settled musical language which is immediately accessible.  It’s kind of middle-brow but it is very fluent narrative music.

Act III opens with Charlotte rereading letters from Werther.   She reads three, and each has its own orchestral sound world – my favourite is the wintry first – set off against her impassioned outbursts after reading each.  Even B was mollified by this, proclaiming of Elena Maximovaat the end “she’s the star.”

That’s a bit rough on Michael Fabiano.  The problem is that in the opera (as opposed to the novel where you get to know him through his letters) Werther is a hard character to warm to because he comes across as a bit of a gloomy creepy stalker. He has such a lot of big singing to do (which MF was absolutely well up to) that his vulnerability is overshadowed by his desperation.

My a golden rule about revivals is things always get a bit coarser.  Luke Gabbedy’s Albert was a bit in this territory.  I don’t recall Albert being quite so boorish in earlier iterations and I don’t see why he should be.

Charlotte’s younger sister, Sophie, has to carry the most of the burden for light relief with some fairly cliched coloratura-soubrettish stuff..  That, and their father’s drinking chums, are the low point (for me) of Massenet’s musical invention.

There are some other oddities in this production.  Why does Charlotte’s father, Le Bailli, so fall out with those chums between Act I (when he goes off to join them at the Golden Grape) and Act II, when with a disapproving look he hurries his children past them on the way to the service to celebrate the pastor’s 50th wedding anniversary?  Could it possibly be because they are Catholics?  One of them makes a mock sign of the cross, which seems odd for a little village near Frankfurt where the pastor is married.

Then there’s the newspapers:  in Act I Le Bailli was reading Pravda.  In Act II one of the drinkers took La Stampa, from which he looked up, seemingly surprised but also informed, to announce “C’est Dimanche.” – I suppose the director thought that was the best that could be done with some pretty clunkily expository libretto.

It’s a great night for a big orchestra.  There were lots of exchanged smiles: they obviously enjoy playing this stuff.  Principal cello Teije Hylkema had many eloquent moments. A quartet of French horns did more than invoke lusty drinkingness.  At the third performance I realised Robert Johnson was in the pit.

Between first night and second night,  Michael Fabiano’s acting improved (I’d say he just relaxed a bit into it) and Stacey Alleaume toned down the perkiness, which was a relief.

I enjoyed the second night the most.  I’m glad I went for a third time but I’ll probably stop at that.


Wrapping up

December 13, 2018

Christmas is coming.  I don’t think I am going to any more live performances this year, so this is a post to wrap things up for the year.

26 10 SSO, de Waart – Beethoven 9

This was a hot ticket:  the orchestra sent out an email requesting any who weren’t going  to return their tickets and receive a credit in exchange.

I expect it was the Beethoven 9 that brought them in.  Once it would have been the return of “Edo” but maybe that aspect is weakening as memory of his tenure as chief conductor fades.

For me, the Haydn Symphony No 104 (also his last; one of the “London” symphonies) was more intriguing.

In the Beethoven, the Chinese bass (or bass-baritone), Shenyang, was phenomenal.  And everyone sang from memory!

De Waart is now 77.  He doesn’t look much older to me than when I first saw him though that is in part a trick because my perception of others’ age has been moving forward (or back) with my own.  The one giveaway is that he has developed a little mannerism of steadying himself on the handrail when he steps down from the podium.

17 11 SSO – Robertson, Capucon, Dvorak, Korngold & Mahler (5)

This was billed (and priced) as a gala concert on the eve of the SSO’s European tour.  We got to hear a kind of fantasy orchestra, with a few choice guests, soon-to-be principal flute Joshua Batty, and I’m guessing soon to go principal trumpet, David Elton, who was appointed principal trumpet at the London Symphony Orchestra this time last year and has been a purely paper presence until this recent return.

4 12 Pinchgut Ataserse

An extreme rarity, performance of the 1740 version of this work by Hasse for the first time since it was performed in Dresden.

At first wasn’t sure whether I would go to this. I was persuaded by the second half caught on the radio on Sunday night (it’s fun these days to follow the score, courtesy of IMSLP) and the availability of reasonably-priced restricted-view seats.

Pinchgut fans seem always to be saying to each other “I think it’s their best yet!” I expect there is a bit of confirmation bias in this or maybe a trick of perspective, but this was probably the most consistently well-sung Pinchgut performance across the 6 principals in recent memory.  Vivica Genaux, though very much promoted as the star of the show, did not stand out incongrously above the rest of the cast.

Orchestrally, the first half was all a bit the same, with long sweeping lush string lines, flutes introduced for moments of pathos, horns for martiality.  There was more variety in the second half.  I most enjoyed Artabano’s aria Pallido il sole (here at 2:39:20 while the link lasts; cf Carlo Vistoli singing a bit slower in 2014 here), not least because the strings managed a sound a bit like muted strings.  In the gloom I couldn’t make out any actual mutes and didn’t see the players removing them.   I remain, as ever, a sucker for muted strings – even if simulated.

7 12 Ensemble Apex

This is a group of young musicians either at or recently from the Sydney Conservatorium.  It’s been going since 2016.  I’m guessing it owes its existence to the conducting ambitions of its director, Sam Weller and the willingness of his fellow-students to assist those (and have some playing opportunities themselves).

Earlier this year, the ensemble gave a  rare performance with dancers of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin.  I missed that, but in the aftermath  there was an opportunity to sign up for their last concert of the year, to include a performance of Rhapsody in Blue.

I signed up to go, then forgot about it.  So it’s just as well that a reminder email popped into my inbox on Wednesday.

Simon Tedeschi was the the piano soloist.  As well as the Gershwin, he played the Brubeck Blue Rondo as an encore.

The concert was held in the “Music Workshop” at the Con.  This is probably a bit small for an orchestra in full cry.  When they play loud you got that kind of sonic constriction of too much music in a confined space that to me says “Band Practice.”  T.hey could do with a set of risers

The other works were:

Adams- Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Koehne- Powerhouse
Marquez- Danzon No.2

Maybe the Adams and the Koehne one after another were a bit too much of the same sort of thing – even though they are really quite different.

Oliver Schermacher played a truly wild clarinet solo at the start of the Gershwin.

I hope the Ensemble comes back next year.


8 12 Sydney Youth Orchestra, Briger, Barker et al, Strauss

I got a tip-off on Friday from someone who goes to many more concerts than I do.  The attraction was that Cheryl Barker would be singing the Four Last Songs and the Marschallin’s part in excerpts from the end of Rosenkavalier. Strauss’s Don Juan rounded out the program, and for completeness I should add that Peter Coleman-Wright had a walk-on moment as the police officer to whom the M replies with the famous “ja ja.”  Alexander Briger conducted.

Cheryl was definitely the highlight of the concert.  She had no difficulty being heard above the orchestra.  Her vibrato is a bit more pronounced than when I last heard her.  In September I felt the orchestra perpetually lagged in a way which must surely have tested her nerve.  Otherwise they made a good fist of things.  The horns were in particularly fine form.  Everyone else could have quietened down a bit more for the woodwind twitters near the end of Im Abendrot.

Getting there

October 30, 2018


More brief notes in my attempt (1, 2) to bring to account live performances I have attended.

10.  22 9 SSO Ashkenazy Romeo and Juliet

This was a very neat program mounted by the SSO: Arabella Steinbacher playing the Bruch violin concerto, bookended by Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture and Ashkenazy’s own selection from the two Prokofiev suites. It was also very enjoyable.

We have had a number of guest concertmasters this year. Sometimes, although they themselves play well, you get the sense that their approach doesn’t “fit” the approach of the rest of a section, so that they end up sticking out a bit at the front as the section as a whole stolidly ploughs on as usual. That wasn’t the case with Adam Chalabi, guest concertmaster for this concert: I thought the violins sounded very well with them.

11.  26 9 Belvoir Calamity Jane 6.30

D and I sat on the stage for this pocket-musical version of what was originally a Doris Day movie.

The first act was set in a bar and we were able to order drinks onstage before it started. Members of the cast were milling around and improvising business including the kind of chat-up that a barmaid at such a saloon might use to soften up a customer. I noticed that a non-cast member, tending the bar, was the only one actually able to dispense the liquor. “Is that because you don’t have an RSA certificate?” I asked the (in character) proprietor’s “niece.” “I have an RSA,” she smartly replied. “A Really Sassy Attitude.” OK, maybe you had to be there, but it was fun, as was the show as a whole. Exhilarating.

The instrumental accompaniment was provided by the MD on a little Collard & Collard upright which sounded surprisingly good considering the treatment it must have received over the years.

Virgina Gay in the title role was terrific. We are lucky that she did not suffer the same fate of her fellow assailees on Illawara Road a few years ago, one of whom was much less lucky.

12.   13 10 AE

With P (and on this occasion her husband) to the final concert of the year for the Australia Ensemble at the John Clancy Auditorium, entitled “Forces of Nature.” This gathered together:

Maria GRENFELL | Ten Suns Ablaze (2012)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN | ‘Szene am Bach’ from Symphony no. 6 arr. Fischer (1810)

Nigel WESTLAKE | Rare Sugar (2007)

Pēteris VASKS | Landscape with birds (1980)

Aaron COPLAND | Appalachian Spring ballet suite (1944)

The Grenfell and the Westlake were return performances of works first commissioned by the Australia Ensemble. I remembered them both favourably from their first outings and enjoyed them again, but by interval the Westlake, which is a kind of clarinet concertino, given a high-voltage performance by David Griffiths, had made such a powerful impression that the Grenfell was quite overshadowed in retrospect.

Opinions amongst my companions were divided about the bird pictures which were projected on the lecture-theatre drop screen while Geoffrey Collins played the Vasks. I enjoyed them and was prepared to go with the flow.

The Szene am Bach was an arrangement for string quintet. It started a little faster than I expected it to go based on orchestral reminiscences.

The Ensemble have used Appalachian Spring as a series closer before – it’s an opportunity to coax the subscribers back for next year with about as large an ensemble (13 players) as the AE ever puts on stage. And despite (for me) some longeurs on the way through, it is a piece that really delivers by the end.

Straight after interval we got a little spiel from Paul Stanhope about next year’s season. This meant there was no delay after the Copland as we adjourned for the traditional drinks and fancy chocolates.

13.   16 10 Cosi at the Con?

This had a question mark in my concert diary because I wasn’t sure when or whether I would go.  My interest was piqued by a reference to an upcoming role on the website of Gavin Brown, who had a star turn in Poulenc’s The Breast of Tiresias which I saw earlier this year.

In the end I went to the Thursday Matinee on the 18th and it was Don Giovanni.

There’s a stronger argument for seeing a student production of a rarity such as the Poulenc than for seeing a more mainstream work, but I’m still definitely glad I went.

I was more impressed by the orchestra in the Poulenc than in the Mozart.  That’s probably because the Mozart is harder.  You pick up any rhythmic sloppiness (which is endemic in student ensembles compared to professional ones) and mishaps stick out more.  The horns were a couple of bars out for what seemed like ages but probably wasn’t really (I admired conductor Stephen Mould’s composure) and there were a few other hair-raising moments. The principal cello could have afforded to play out a bit more in Batti, batti.

But these are quibbles. It really is great that the students get to perform the opera with a credible orchestra.

There is a detailed review of the first night (I heard the same cast) here with which I mostly concur, save that I would be more commendatory of Esther Song, who grew on me in the course of the performance as Donna Anna. Haotian Qi’s performance of the Don’s serenade to Donna Elvira’s maid (here ironically oblivious to it as she was listening to something else through headphones whilst getting on with her life) was particularly fine.

The production was set in a “celebrity” world somewhere between Hollywood and the Conservatorium itself (when Masetto and his chums beat up Leporello they did so with one of those sticks that cellists use to moor their spikes. DonG was a #metoo celebrity narcissist and abuser. Hell, at the end (solving the problem that the stage lacks a trap-door) was exposure and denunciation. It all worked quite well though perhaps there was just a bit too much business with cameras and phones at times. There were a few cuts which together with the updating made things just a bit confusing at times.

14.   20 10 SSO Thibaudet Egyptian

Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted. As well as the Saint-Saens piano concerto no 5 (surprisingly last and first played with the SSO by Thibaudet himself in 2010) the concert featured the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Sibelius 7.

The SSO seems to have given up selling choir and organ stall tickets.  Only a few people were sitting there. Too cheap, or too mean?  Could be both but it is shameful for subsidized tickets to go unsold if it is because of a desire to maintain a floor price.

Francisco Lopez was the latest in a series this year of guest principal flutes, and he shone in both the Debussy and the Sibelius.

I thought Saraste could have kept the orchestra a little more in check in the Saint-Saens, for which Thibaudet set a cracking pace in the outer movements. On the other hand, conducting without music (as I am sure any Finn worth his salt can do) he hypnotised the orchestra into the most dramatic Sibelius 7 I have ever heard.

Saraste last conducted the SSO in 1986. I think I probably was at that concert because I remember hearing the Schumann Konzertstucke for 4 horns played by the Canberra Horn Consort (led by Hector McDonald) and probably went out of my way to hear it. At interval I overheard Emma Dunch, the Orchestra’s CEO, loudly declaring “We must have him back sooner than another 32 years.”

In the early evening leading up to the concert a stupendous thunderstorm rolled across the city.  In the forecourt of the Opera House the Invictus Games were being launched.  Before playing his encore, Thibaudet thanked us for braving the weather and the security.

Thibaudet’s regular visits to our shores seem to have started at about the turn of the millenium.  This is what he looked like then and the picture or something very similar still featured in the publicity for this concert:


Inside the program booklet was a more up-to-date shot:


Philip Scott in Limelight referred to an earlier visit when Thibaudet played the complete piano music of Ravel; Thibaudet also performed with the ACO in 1992.

J-YT’s first visit is probably less well-known:


That’s from the program for the 1981 Sydney International Piano Competition.  Soulful eh?  If I’d found this before the concert I would have taken it up for an autograph and, surely, a laugh.

Rondo alla Turca

August 31, 2018

OA Turk In Italy

Opera Australia’s winter season ends tomorrow.

Earlier in the month, I went to the first night of Rossini’s The Turk in Italy. Last night, to celebrate D’s return from China the day before, I went again with D.

Aside from the celebration, I wanted to take D because I enjoyed the first night so much. I thought that D had not seen it in 2014 when this production was first staged.

I should be more careful in my practice of adding “with D” in this blog because in this I was mistaken. Still, no harm done.

Simon Phillips’ production is a slapstick one, set at a ‘fifties beach resort. I don’t think I have given such a high ratio of my attention to the stage business over activity in the orchestra for a long time. When I saw it the first time and again on the first night, there were lots of laugh-out-aloud moments, and not a few beach-themed jokes, such as when all of the gentlemen in the chorus wrestled with their deck chairs in the overture.

I’m not so convinced with the Ockerisms in the surtitles or a few other touches. Surely this is a vein well-mined in Phillips’ previous production of The Elixir of Love where at least it was integral to the whole production. Here it was at odds with the wonderful Italian set.

The problem with a joke can be that once it is told, you’ve heard it. One such joke is in the last act, when there is a masquerade party. In this production, all the men, bar one, turn up (entirely by coincidence) as Elvis Presley and all the women as Marilyn Monroe. The joke does not sustain the scene.

At interval I overheard Robert Gay, lecturer about town (and father of the now more famous Virgina) saying that he enjoyed it more the first time he had seen it and I wouldn’t be surprised if the joke-told factor accounted for that.

One piece of business, involving a phallicly-placed and shaken champagne bottle (far from the only phallic joke of the evening) and popped cork, did not survive the first night. The “cork,” in reality thrown by one or other of Selim (the Turk) and Fiorila landed in the orchestra pit and struck the principal viola. People could have been hurt; more likely, valuable instruments could have been damaged; but it’s also a matter of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – the musicians hate it when that sort of thing happens. You’d have thought that would have been sorted out in 2014. Instead next time round Stacey Alleume as Fiorila wrenched the cork off and stowed it in her cleavage. A bit lame if you had seen the original and a pity that they couldn’t have mastered throw to the rear of the stage. The problem is I suppose that if it has gone wrong a repetition would be unforgiveable and so a risk not to be taken.

Stacey Alleaume is being touted as the next big thing after her appearance earlier this year in The Merry Widow. Next year she will have a number of prominent roles. I wouldn’t say she yet fills the shoes of Emma Matthews, the 2014 Fiorila.

Last night didn’t get quite such a warm reception as the first night. I guess that’s the first night “home crowd” advantage. Nor was it as full as it deserved to be. Could it be people are less willing to pay top dollar for something so slight and silly?

(picture above Keith Saunders; filched from Fairfax)

Opera Australia, Sydney, 2019

August 15, 2018

Breaking news.

The brochure for next year’s season thumped into my letterbox today.  Atypically Australia Post excelled itself. According to OA’s plans this was a day early.

There are:

10 mainstage operas.

Of these:

5 are new productions, to Opera Australia at least.

2 of these are brought/bought in:

Wozzeck coproduction with Salzburg et al (6 performances)

Il Viaggio a Rheims –from the Netherlands and Denmark  (5)

The other 3 are running together in July-August using the new digital technology featured this year for Aida:

Butterfly (23)

Anna Bolena (8) and

Whiteley – new work by Kats-Chernin, libretto Justin Fleming (6)

The revivals are:

Boheme (this has been on sale for a while because of the NYE start) (20)

Turandot (22)

Werther (6)

Salome  (7) and

Marriage of Figaro (10)

By my reckoning that means the 3 operas by Puccini account for 65 of 113 mainstage opera performances.

An eleventh opera, Ghost Sonata (Reimann, 1984) billed as a chamber opera, has 4 performances at the Scenery Workshop at the Opera Centre in Surry Hills.

There are 2 concert performances of Andrea Chenier in the Concert Hall in August  featuring Jonas Kauffmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek (if she can make it)

There are 2 different productions of West Side Story – one on the Harbour (26) and the other in the Opera Theatre (56) sandwiched between the main winter season and an October/November coda (Viaggio, Figaro) – together making up 82 of 195 music-theatre performances (stretching things just a bit to include Chenier in that).

There are also some recitals.

Within the constraints that Opera Australia has set itself, it is a reasonable effort by them. That is a pretty big proviso. The long-term trend, especially re musicals and Puccini, is saddening.

Still, I’m particularly looking forward to Wozzeck, Werther, Il Viaggio (a silly yearning) and Salome and welcome Anna Bolena, billed as the first of three in a Donizetti  “Queens” cycle.  I’m not sure if I’ll go to all three video productions though I can see reasons why each of them has been selected for that mode of production.  Andrea Chenier for me will be a question of whether I can accept the price premium.


July 24, 2018

Last Wednesday with D to the first night of Aida.

This was touted by Lyndon T as a foretaste of the future: enormous LED panels lumber around the stage providing backdrop and music-video-esque commentary on the action.  Next year we are to have three such productions.  Amongst other things, this will save on changing sets.

Despite a little blue glitch (a flickering panel) the screens were dazzling. When sheer splendour was required, they were terrific. The back-drop for the scene by the waters of the Nile was also very evocative.

There is also the risk though, as with all background business to which directors tend to resort to liven up what one suspects they dread as a long aria which they see as holding up the action, that they will be a distraction. For me, lightning flashes against a stormy cloudscape fell into this category.  Can’t we trust the singer and the music?  Right at the start, Radames’ vision of “Celeste Aida” was for me cheapened by the stereotypical black but comely video-maiden on the panels behind him.

The modest Opera Theatre stage poses a particular challenge. In Act II scene 2 the Egyptians seemed stuck in a rut to the back of the stage.

Without a set, Radames’ trial took place on stage (the libretto envisages it taking place off-stage, leaving more focus on Amneris in this scene).

Singing was very strong though close up it felt a bit unremittingly loud. I suppose I would feel differently if sitting further back, but something is wrong if a tenor as fine as Riccardo Massi as Radames is overpowered by Amneris and Aida. Massi was still able to act with his vowels within his dynamic range but A and A didn’t leave much scope for that.

Does Aida really join Radames in the tomb, or is this just his dream? It’s not as if they embrace, and at the end she just wanders away from him. Perhaps a twist was intended.

Gold star for finally spotting the obvious but all of a sudden similarities between Nabucco and Aida sprung to mind. Where have I been?

I’ve been more moved by the human drama in other, daggier productions. The wonderful thing about Aida is that after all the big stuff at the start it ends very intimately. This production paid tribute to that as one must but somehow didn’t quite deliver for me.

So, a brilliant production, good time had by all, but leaving with me with reservations as also a minority of reviewers (1, 2).

It was a relief to have the woodwind up in the front of the pit.

Nights at the opera

July 17, 2018

The Sydney winter season of Opera Australia is upon us, advertised this year as running from Jun 28 to September 1. After that, Evita.

I have been so far to Lucia and Rigoletto.

The big story about Lucia was the homecoming of Jessica Pratt in the title role. It wasn’t such a bad thing to have Michael Fabiano as Edgardo and Opera Australia took advantage of the presence of a strong Enrico, Giorgio Caoduro, to reinstate the “Wolf Creek” (Dulwich-Hill-gangster joke) scene. That wasn’t included on this production’s first outing in 2012.

In my recollection, Emma Matthews (the 2012 Lucia) was more affecting than JP, even while I’m sure Jessica was more vocally spectacular. It could be that in 2012 I had a better seat (my old music teacher, E, who had s better seat, thought JP was terrific): when you perch up on the side you are as good as in the wings and some ways and you (well, I) become a bit more conscious of the mechanics and the way in which any opera performance is an incredibly intricate and scripted colour-by-numbers operation. This tends to drag down the necessary suspension of disbelief.

By the end, however, possibly because he had the advantage of singing so much of the last act, it was Fabiano’s night.

Not that it is a competition. Really.

Reading over my 2012 post it seems that the chorus has had a little cutback from 24 to 18 each gender .

Perched up high and on the side the one thing I missed was the woodwind. With the newly configured pit the orchestra has reverted to its longtime configuration which has them at the back (only the percussion are further back), right under the lip of the stage. When the mad scene began, I wondered at how faint and distant the flute was – it was so distant I didn’t even think to listen more carefully to ascertain whethr (as in 2012) we were being treated to some simulacum of the glass harmonica.

I thought about this some more when I went to Rigoletto. Burying the woodwind so far back obliges singers to rely on the conductor almost entirely for their ensemble with any wind obbligati.

For example, whilst all ears were on the complicated cello part in Rigoletto’s Act II aria, you could hardly hear the cor anglais line and there was reason to doubt that either the c.a. player couldn’t hear Dalibor Jenis or vice versa. If it wasn’t this spot it was one like it:

Rig cello n ca

Something similar happened in the famous quartet, with Maddalena’s offbeat figure, (though not only there and not only her – I have heard tidier quartets):


By then I’d moved opportunistically down to an empty seat at the end of the front row, so the issue with the woodwind being so deeply buried was no longer one of their being obscured to me. But they still seemed further away than they were even when placed at the back in the past. I’d like to see and hear them brought back up to the front. And I think they’d be happier there too. I guess then the violas and celli will be stuck back into the depths but I think it would be worth it all the same.

Meanwhile, from my new vantage point I was blown away by leader (for the night) Huy-Nguyen Bui’s rendition of this lick in the subsequent storm scene trio:

rig scale

He dashed this off with such a dazzling sprezzatura (I’m dodging the right technical term as I have no idea if it was spiccato or sautillee or just plain staccato) that I thought (but surely imagined) that he was playing demisemiquavers on each note.

My friend Ub came to Rigoletto. I told her that there was a surprise in the last act. I meant the Fiat bambino that Rigoletto “drives” on to the stage. Unfortunately, at least with the first-night crowd, that has by now (the production first aired in 1991) lost any surprise value. I suppose that’s the thing about old productions becoming, as they say “tired” – it’s the audience which can tire rather than anything shabby on the stage.

I still like this production, and I remain a sucker for any vehicle on stage (the tram was a highlight of Golem). I still laughed at Gilda hurriedly putting out her cigarette when her father came home and fanning the smoke out the window, and the beauty of that (as well as her magazines) is that it is a foretaste of the trouble she is going to give her father.

Mind you, not all the business makes sense, at least to me. Rigoletto seems to lock Gilda in when he goes out. So why do the seducers (who come in an upstairs window with the ladder that Rigoletto is tricked into holding) then simply come down the stairs and open the door from within? If they had the key, why the ladder? And couldn’t Rigoletto smell the cigarette on Gilda’s breath? Maybe he didn’t want to notice it.

PS 19 vii: At Aida last night the woodwind were back up the front.

Delightful Breasts

May 24, 2018

Today to a matinee [11.30!] performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music of Poulenc’s opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias).

The Tiresias of the title is Therese who, tiring of the role of submissive wife, loses her breasts and becomes a man, Tiresias. (That’s a nod to Greek mythology – the original T was a man who was punished for annoying Hera by spending 7 years as a woman.) She leads her fellow women on a sex strike and her husband takes on the woman’s role and bears more than 40,000 babies in one day. At the end Tir reverts to Ther and the couple reconcile and urge the people of France to regenerate/repopulate after the ravages of war. It is a surreal piece, based on a play by Apollinaire. There are a few sub-plots I have left out in this summary.

Stephen Mould conducted a student cast and orchestra. Kate Gaul directed.

I went out of curiosity because it was a rarity. I wasn’t sure what to expect at all though probably something a bit astringent. In fact the music was a confection reminiscent most of all of Offenbach (other French composers up to Ravel were also in there) – pastiche enhanced by Poulenc’s melodic flair. I can’t say I took the story too seriously: instead I relished the music, especially the lush orchestra – a particular luxury at the ticket price of $40.

Sure, it’s a student performance and some allowances had to be made for that – more for the vocalists than the orchestra. But the standard remained creditable and always enjoyable. In their different ways, I particularly admired Gavin Brown (a big sing as the husband and brilliant stage movement) and Haotian Qi (eloquent prologue).

Originally advertised as running for an hour and a half with an interval, the interval has been dropped (wisely) and it runs for just under an hour. There is one more performance, on Saturday afternoon.

It really was a delicious treat.