Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

When too much music…

August 30, 2017

R-6372683-1417627092-3411.jpeg

…is barely enough (with apologies to Roy and HG).

My attendance at live events, generally musical ones, has declined in the last couple of years, but there was a bit of a breakout this month.  I record it briefly below

1.      SSO – Mozart – Wispelwey 10/8

On the day the SSO released its 2018 season, to Angel Place to hear the SSO with Wispelwey – the last of the Haydn “times of the day” symphonies (obviously, Le Soir) and one of the cello concerti. A Mozart wind serenade and an arrangement of a movement of the Elgar Cello Concerto (as a mystery encore – departing from the tradition that these are usually by Mozart) made up the program.   As I write the concert is still available online .

I found I knew the Haydn better than I expected to and realise that it was on one of the relatively few LPs we had in my early teen years – probably the one pictured above.  That could be why I enjoyed it the most, though I also enjoyed the symphony – with some especially striking flute moments as well as Haydn’s frequently rather high horn lines.  The Mozart didn’t quite live up to expectations, perhaps because, in advance, I had been thinking of the Gran Partita.

2.     Gnarly Buttons – SSO Carriageworks 13/8

This was the first of the SSO’s concerts this year at Carriageworks.  An irresistible bargain at $35. The novelty of Carriageworks and its groovy toilets has yet to wear off.  I feel such a hipster just going there!

I had heard the title work earlier in the year played by David Griffiths with the Australia Ensemble.  It wasn’t quite so striking the second time around, mainly I think because of the venue.  Bay 17 at Carriageworks is large and cavernous and features industrial strength ventilation which figuratively speaking has the musicians wading around in a brownish kind of white noise up to about their midriffs.  In addition (though in fact the noise could well have been the culprit in a large degree) I didn’t feel that Francesco Celata managed to bring to the clarinet part the kind of wild freedom that daring that David Griffiths managed for the AE.

The background noise was not a problem for Kate Neal’s The Valley of Lost Things, which was for a larger ensemble – more of a small orchestra.  This had a very diverting kind of rush-all-over-the-place feel.  Towards the end I was getting a little worn out by it and external thoughts intruded and then it ended.  I sort of thought it had gone on a bit long; someone else felt it was only just getting started.  The composer’s notes suggest it was written as an interlude (which seems a bit extravagant), so perhaps development was not really in mind.

The highlight of the concert for me was the Boulez explosante-fixe…. This featured a differently constituted orchestra and three amplified flutes one of which was treated to various electronic manipulations.  The principal flute from the St Louis Orchestra was flown in to take this part.  There were some strange sounds that a friend afterwards told me were amplified/delayed key-slapping.

For once I did not begrudge David Robertson his irresistible urge to speak as he gave us a bit of background: Robertson conducted the first performance of this version of the work (it came in a number of iterations over the years) in 1993.

I couldn’t of course hum a tune from this, and I’m even not sure how I could describe it as “music” – though it is definitely more “music” than the sort of novelty promoted by Jon Rose.  Actually it was music and there was an emotional arc, but my memory of that aspect of it has faded.  What I remember now was the engrossing and delicious sounds – in the way that, for example, harps and bells are delicious – music and sound that I just wanted to lean forward into like swimming into water of just the right cool temperature on a hot day.  Give me more of it until I have excess!

3.    Parsifal 14/8

Whilst the Opera Theatre has been closed, Opera Australia have had a number of special events.  This was probably the most proclaimed – bringing super-tenor Jonas Kaufmann to Sydney in the title role.

I resisted at first the hype and the prices: it would cost me $395 (less a subscriber discount) to secure a seat of the quality I usually enjoy in the SOH Concert hall for SSO concerts.   At the last minute I secured a rather distant but at least affordable ticket.  Once you factor in the length of the performance, seats at this price were not such bad value and if I had chosen earlier or even more wisely I could have got one closer up, albeit at the side in box D.   I now regret not responding to the shocking prices by confining myself to cheaper tickets but allowing myself more than one go.

Parsifal was my first exposure to Wagner.  Not the opera itself, but the Prelude/Vorspiel which featured in the opening of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged, which I saw at the Old Tote in 1976.  Later that year I bought a highlights LP of the Solti recording from Rowe Street Records.  I thought as a result that I knew it, but little did I know. The first act and all of that business with the swan being killed seemed positively interminable when I went to the concert performance conducted by Charles Mackerras in 1977.  This year’s were the first live (and still concert) performances in Sydney since then.  How could I have contemplated staying away?

It took me most of the first act to get used to sitting so far away and to adjust my expectations of the detail of sound you can hear in a singer’s voice.  The first act still seems to drag on a bit – by the time Gurmenanz is asked to reminisce about how Titurel and Klingsor knew each other, I was ready to say “Enough already! We can look that up for ourselves.”  I suppose I hadn’t yet settled into that Buddhist time-space groove.  As a former piano teacher said to me at interval – you just have to enjoy the music.  – Why should I want it to pass any sooner?

Nothing much really happens in Parsifal so on one level it is a good candidate for a concert performance.  Of all the acts it was probably the first which suffered the most from the lack of staged religious ceremony.  There’s a bit paradoxical so far as religious stuff is something I am pretty resistant to, even if we are to accept that we are being shown it in an anthropological way rather than being required to participate in it ourselves.  Wagner’s motives and sincerity when it comes to the religiosity of Parsifal are vexed point as are so many issues when you start contemplating Wagner as a person.

Such is the imprinting effect of recordings that the bits from that highlights record are still the bits I know and consequently like the best.

I enjoyed the second and third acts more.  It probably helped that a few fidgeters near me had gone home.  The other thing that helps is that the music begins to weave its magic more once the expositional groundwork has laid by the first act in terms of motivs etc.  The point at which Amfortas desired to follow his father to death was just achingly sad.

Obviously expectations of Kaufmann in the title role were high.  These were met; the word on everybody’s lips at interval was Kwangchul Youn as Gurmenanz.  It was great to hear the AOB Orchestra out of the box and up on the stage.

I’m glad I went after all.

4.     SSO, Bruckner, Beethoven, Young, Cooper. 18/8

The next Friday again to the SSO, this time at the SOH to hear Imogen Cooper play Beethoven 2 and Simone Young play Bruckner 5.

I wasn’t so crazy about the Beethoven and tend to agree with Zoltan Szabo’s comments here.  There was much more to the Bruckner.  This had  not been performed by the SSO since 1984 and that was only their second performance (the first was in 1977).  On reflection, this is probably not so surprising.  The fifth symphony is sometimes accounted Bruckner’s first mature work and indeed he didn’t get to hear it himself in his lifetime.  I feel as though the fourth comes round relatively often, but I expect the 5th is jostled aside by the more popular >5 ones.

5.   Australia Ensemble – 19/8

With my friend and former piano teacher, P, to this.  On the way a shocking experience as we drove through what I could only think of as the Desolation of Smaug at the southern end of Sydney Park where the Westconnex works have started.  Things aren’t much better on ANZAC Parade and High Street with the preparations for the light rail, which has also been attended by wanton destructions (elsewhere) of trees.  P and I grumbled to each other about the decision to buy big trams for this line, which has made the track more unwieldy and will mean services are less frequent.  When will the powers that be get it that frequency is the critical thing for public transport for which people will be persuaded to abandon their ownership of cars?  Mutter mutter.  We needed cheering up.

The program was:

Albert Roussel (1869-1937): Divertissement (1906) for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano

Madeleine Dring (1923-1977): Trio (1968) for flute, oboe and piano

Mark Grandison (b 1965): Riffraction (2007) for clarinet, strings and piano, 2016 Winner of the Blakeman National Composition Prize UNSW

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Octet in F major D803 (1824)

Mark Grandison described his first-half closer as based on a “triple pun” but as far as I can see it was really a single or just stretching it double pun on riff, action and refraction.  It was lively but I felt the violin only got a bit of a late look-in.

The Dring was written for her oboist husband, Peter Lord, who premiered it with William Lloyd and Andre Previn (this must have been an LSO connection).   I reckon the oboist got the best tunes, especially at the start of the second movement, where there was a tune (at about 3:25) which definitely gives me a reminiscence of something else.  The piano writing struck me as rather unimaginative by comparison.

The Roussel was delightful and the “find” of the evening for me.

I am having a bit of a Schubert craze at present (struggling through D568) and so was feeling particularly receptive to this and enjoyed it greatly.

6.  Imogen Cooper – 21/8

This was part of the SSO’s International Pianists series at Angel Place.  IC has a strong following and it was very well attended.  The program was

BEETHOVEN 7 Bagatelles, Op.33
HAYDN Sonata in C minor, Hob.XVI:20
BEETHOVEN Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’
[Interval]
ADÈS Darknesse Visible
BEETHOVEN Sonata in A flat, Op.110

I sat first behind Ms Cooper (looking over her left shoulder from the gallery – what I like to think of as the piano teacher’s spot).  For the second half I moved to the body of the hall – simply because I could and because the temptation to move to a more expensive seat was irresistible.  In hindsight, this was a mistake as I would have been better off where I started for the effects in the Adès (held notes; harmonics; fast repeated notes).  Quite effectively, even if this was partly because people couldn’t be sure when the Adès finished, this turned retrospectively into an old fashioned kind of prelude as it segued to Op 110.

7.  Sydney Chamber Opera – 22/8

– already noted.  I almost went again in the hope that I could overcome the obstacle of the lip synching once habituated, but didn’t quite manage it.

8.   SSO, Robertson, “New World Memories” 26/8

A very popular concert – the modern work, Mnesomyne’s Pool, by Steve Mackey, cunningly slipped in between Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.  As the title indicates, at least for the cognoscenti, Mackey’s inspiration was the role of memory in music – which is my excuse for some of the associative reminiscences included in this post.  I’m afraid I should have had a longer nap in the afternoon to give MP a better hearing.  I hope to catch it on the radio or on line later to do it justice.

You can see my stamina and maybe also my narcissism are flagging as these accounts get ever more perfunctory.

I also went to two other concerts this month to turn pages for a friend.  That was interesting but cannot really be considered as the same thing as an attendance as an auditor – I am too busy making sure I do not wander away from where it is up to on the page.

 

Too clever for me

August 23, 2017

Last night to Carriageworks for Sydney Chamber Opera’s production of Britten’s first “chamber opera,” The Rape of Lucretia.

Something was afoot.  I was forewarned by Kip Williams’ director’s notes:

The Rape of Lucretia is a foundation myth that tradisionally has been used to perpetuate ideas surrounding the ‘value’ of a republic: namely that men must bind together in order to protect the chastity of their women.  At its core, our production asks questions of the ways in which this thinking still exists in our contemporary lives, and what impact this paradigm has had on how we think about gender, power and sex.  Ultimately, we are interested in examining this ancient culture in the context of our own, drawing parallels between ideologies and systems of power that permit masculine entitlement, engender the disempowerment of women, and both perpetuate and exonerate acts of sexual assault.  This production is an act of illumination and erosion of the exculpatory power of this history.

[….]

One of the challenges in approaching a staging of Britten’s opera is the absence of any critical perspective on the gender politics contained within the world of Rome.  By giving our performers contemporary identities as their primary relationship to the audience, we afford them an active critical voice on the politics at play.  through them we explore the performative and restrictive nature of gender in the Lucretia myth by fracturing each charater into three parts: the costume, which represents the character, the actor, who performs the character’s actions whilst lipsynching the dialogue, and the singer, who gives voice to the character.

OK.  LIPSYNCHING!  That artifice of last resort usually called upon when a singer is indisposed.  You can get used to that when it is just one singer, but why would you willingly embrace it for the practically the whole cast?

Just to explain a bit more.  It is 509BC.  Rome is ruled by Etruscan kings.  Lucretia is the only virtuous wife of a bunch of Roman aristocrats who are away in military camp – the others all find their wives otherwise engaged when they pop back to check on them.  One of the husbands, who is envious of Lucretia’s husband for having such a virtuous wife, goads Tarquinius, Prince of Rome whom no woman can refuse, to just pop back again and see how virtuous she really is – after all, maybe her virtue wasn’t tested/tempted quite enough?  T. jumps on his steed, arrives at L’s place in the middle of the night demanding hospitality [interval].  Servants we are told by the narrators (see below) are insolent towards him in a way that only servants can be.  (Servants!  We all know how they can behave!)

In the night Tarquinius goes to Lucretia’s chamber and rapes her, galloping off to the camp before dawn. Next day Lucretia summons her husband back, tells him what has happens and says – despite his entreaties that it is not her fault – that the punishment for unchastity is death and kills herself.  The Roman men vow to rise up against the tyrants, which we all know they did and founded the (scarcely less tyrannous) Roman Republic.

This all comes from Livy (a bit altered and supplemented in some details) save that in the opera a lot of the action is narrated by a male and female chorus, taking primary responsibility for the male and female spheres of action respectively.  From the start it is made clear that they are from some later, Christian, era. At the end the female chorus asks if that is all the story and the male replies it’s all fine because it’s given meaning (what meaning exactly is unclear) by Christ’s love.  This helpfully provides a bit of a chorale for the finale.

Obviously it’s not a very attractive story from the perspective of modern sexual politics.  But can the audience be trusted to work that out for themselves?  Apparently not.

Just to explain a bit more: in the first scene (at the camp) the three women singers donned insignia to designate the male characters, who were then sung, puppetteer style, by the respective male singers hovering in the background.  In the second scene the process was reversed.  And so on until the denouement when the artificae was (mostly) abandoned for more direct dramatic expression.

Various reviewers of the production have tried to find redeeming aspects to the conceit but in my opinion these are even-a-stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day sorts of advantages.  I found it genuinely confusing at first and also an obstacle to my enjoyment of the music.  You have to go along with it at the price of being totally put off so I gradually got used to it in the second scene, though not without moments when I found a “the-king-is-in-the-altogether” spirit surfacing within me.

Maybe if I went again (only $35 so not out of the question) I’d be able to deal with it better.

Of the singers, I was particularly impressed by Andrew Goodwin – not a singer I’ve always been keen on in the past – even if (and this is a response to the work rather than the singer) I found myself sighing just a bit inwardly at some of the more extended passages of aspirated tenor coloratura – BB and PP at it again. (The crucible of light is drowned!) Goodwin gave a bravura account (wrestling a chair as Tarquinius’ steed) of Tarquinius’ rush to Rome.  Later, the sinister night rustlings of T’s approach also caught my imagination.  Things continued with more drama (as you would expect) in the second half.

The orchestra/instrumental ensemble is placed behind the amphitheatre-ish set, which I think if you were low down on the tiered seating would muffle its sound.  Even from where I sat, high enough to overcome this obstacle, the orchestra still seemed a bit distant, especially when it was playing quietly.  Many details were scarcely discernible.

The house (general admission) was full (14 rows of 20 seats), including (in a reserved section) some of the great-and-good – Neil A was there with M Vallentine; Richard Mills was also there (it’s a co-production with Victorian Opera) and the man in front of me, fascinatingly, had his Australian Opera program from when they first put it on up the road in Newtown in 1971 (it came back in 1981).

At present Carriageworks also has an exhibition about the 1917 strike (which started at Eveleigh).  This includes some large and striking union banners which are on display in the main foyer/hall.  I am still trying to work out why in the Australian coats of arms which feature on them, the kangaroo and emu face away from the shield.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Greedy

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.