Archive for the ‘Opera Australia 2009’ Category

Così 4

February 17, 2010

On Saturday, en route to the SSO’s Mahler 1, I received an sms from my OA-insider friend, Ry: Così fan tutte was to be broadcast on Sunday on ABC1 at 2.30pm.

I have yet to enter the digital TV age so I had missed the live broadcast last year on ABC2.

I watched on Sunday and enjoyed it, though as I texted back to Ry, “What kind of a loser am i watching school for lovers on my own on valentine’s day?”

It probably helped that I knew the production well: thanks to Ry, I saw it three times (well, two times thanks to him and one time on my own account).

The TV version cuts down the Japanese wedding thang and the back projections of the live footage from the wedding video maker. We were given some video feed as the main broadcast image just very occasionally, but it wasn’t really the same effect and was pretty inexplicable because there was so little of the wedding mise-en-scène.

I thought it was pretty ungracious of them to devote the overture to credits – why not some live orchestra footage? The only saving grace of this was that in the video-over we see the original Japanese groom, who apparently broke contract on pretty much the eve of the broadcast. He was more handsome, charming and slim than his replacement, though presumably not suffficiently paid to induce him to stay when he got another offer [in lawyer talk, this is embraced or decried as part of the theory of efficient breach].

Otherwise, the TV presentation (Ry said the sound was better than on the original live broadcast) captures pretty well the strengths and also weaknesses of the performance and concept. Some of the orchestral playing comes through as rougher than it seemed live, and I was reminded of a recurrent intermittently unsatisfactory state of affairs in the cello section which I noticed again recently in Manon.

This production received a much less favourable review from Michael Shmith in the Age [“Not one of Opera Australia’s greatest nights.”] than it did from Peter McCallum in the SMH [“Opera Australia’s Mozart productions have been mixed in recent years, and this one deserves to endure.”].

Some of this is a question of a difference of approach (they do stand on their critical dignity in Melbourne, even if the sub-editor can’t spell the title of the work correctly). There is also an ongoing resentment in Melbourne over the demise of the old Opera Victoria and its “takeover” (actually: taking over the business only and paying its debts) by the then Australian Opera, now Opera Australia. Opera Australia never seems to get an easy run there these days, which is a bit of a vicious circle. Shmith wasn’t keen on Cuneo’s conducting in Melbourne, which going on his work last year in the Magic Flute is understandable.

However, I’m prepared to guess that a big reason for the less favourable reception in Melbourne is that they didn’t have Rachelle Durkin and Shane Lowrencev as Fiordiligi and Guglielmo. The video reminded me what a good job they did. Inevitably, this is a reflection on Hye Seoung Kwon and Luke Gabbedy, who took their places, but RD’s and SL’s shoes would have been big ones to step into.

For the next 10 days it’s on the ABC’s iview thing. You can see and hear for yourself if you have 3 hours or so to spare.

I’m not sure that I would have found it particularly riveting television if I hadn’t already seen the production and been able to treat the broadcast as a reminiscence. The main problem would probably have been, not so much ironically as predictably, also its main strength: that contempo-opera-in-English approach. That’s what makes some of the acting so direct and genuinely funny, but it definitely chops up the vocal lines and hence musical “beauty” something terrible.

All the same, Tim Mortimer’s tweet: “fat bogans in tracksuits singing cosi in english on ABC1” seems both harsh and superficial, even if the latter can be accounted for by the medium and its formal constraints.

Grimes revisited

November 2, 2009

I returned from Shanghai on Friday morning expressly for the purpose of catching the last night of Opera Australia’s Peter Grimes.  I am very glad I did.

This production has been extensively documented on the internet, including by a number of people who went more than my two times, to the point that there is little I need or could add by way of detailed observation. Had I not been going away, I too would happily have gone more than merely twice – and I, too, had the chance (which I couldn’t take up) of company rush to assist me in such a project.

That, too, as I have commented elsewhere, is a cause for concern and dismay. What is the basis of the resistance to such a work which makes such company rush tickets possible or necessary?

I asked a colleague, and I know she is an opera-goer, if she had been. She told me she hadn’t. She didn’t like Britten, she said, because somebody had told her he was a Nazi sympathiser. She is Jewish, so this is a determinative factor for her. I said: “Don’t be silly. He was a homosexual pacifist who ran away to America along with Auden and Isherwood!” [OK: I was simplifying things a bit.] She said: “Auden was a Nazi.” Let’s just say I was stupefied. It’s not immoral, I suppose, to be ignorant, but some ignorance can be pretty shocking.

But back to the work, and the production.

First the work.

Seeing and hearing it again, what struck me was its dramatic sense, particularly in the pacing and juxtaposition of different moods and genre-moments. As with the Sinfonia da Requiem, there are moments of Shostakovian (or post-Mahlerian) grotesquery (the policemen’s scene from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk came to mind). There is comedy, pathos, tenderness, loudness and softness. There is dramatic preparation (for the storm, for example, but also, has been pointed out, between the party music and the subsequent roar of the crowd). Less notably (because it is an easier thing to achieve) though not less effectively, there is recapitulation and reminiscence. Another thing which really strikes me is the room the work allows for a variety of interpretation and response.

As to the production, my respect for it is enhanced. It is responsive to the text and the music in just so many ways. So much detail has been so very carefully thought out and executed.

I still have a niggling reservation about the postmodernish ramping up of the role of Dr Crabbe – is this really necessary? When he delights in the playfulness of the Borough boys (surely Crabbe as Britten here, nudge, nudge) I find it intrusive and even a little embarrassing, as well as heavy handed underlining – does the director think we won’t notice the lads without this? But conversely, despite all the business of clearing the hall of chairs during the passacaglia (which actually is co-ordinated brilliantly with the music), it is difficult to imagine the coup-de-theatre of the stage-within-a-stage moving forward working so well if it was simply left to the stage machinery to execute.

The ensuing scene in Grimes’s hut is the pithiest part of the production, and is masterful, both as to the circumstances of the boy’s death (caused by Grimes but, in a way, also by the mob) and the ending – both Balstrode’s detection of something amiss and Mrs Sedley’s.

Enough has been said elsewhere about the performances, which were uniformly excellent. Maybe Catherine Carby was on the youthful side for Auntie, but that is a question of casting rather than performance, and she did have a terrific 1940s look. I take back any earlier implicit criticism of Mark Wigglesworth’s musical direction.

It seems odd to complain, as Andrew Byrne does, that:

It seems unbalanced and unfair that most operas billed to be conducted by the musical director [ie: Richard Hickox] in recent years had internationally acclaimed casts singing with the best of Australia’s resident opera singers.

There have been expressions of regret that there has been no permanent visual record of the production made which might result in the issue of a DVD. If this were to require the use of the unsightly taped-on-head microphones preferred by the ABC for Cosi or Pinchgut (and, I think the ABC) for its own recordings, I could do without it: that is unthinkable. The use of such microphones is disfiguring and seems to me to be an example of management acceding to the easiest path proposed by technicians.

Apart from a revival (when can we get a cast to match this?) I am now looking forward to the less well-known opera, Marsha Grimes, about the lesbian vampire who abducted and ate all the little girls in the Borough and nobody even noticed. (Music by Ethyl Smith; libretto by Edith Sitwell or (maybe) Muriel Spark.)

Cribbed from Crabbe

October 16, 2009

nla peter grimesTonight to the first night of Peter Grimes.

When the curtain rose, the assembled people of the borough faced us in contemporary-with-the-opera’s-composition garb for the inquest prelude in what seemed a loving tribute to OA’s rehearsal space, Marrickville Town Hall, masquerading as something more like the Aldeburgh/the Borough parish hall. Actually, Marrickville Town Hall is finer than that: it was more like Rockdale Town Hall, home of the Rockdale Opera Company. It was a spectacular (if spectacularly drab) set, but I knew that was the only one we were going to get.

As a result, there was a lot of necessary suspension of disbelief, as the hall had to stand for strand and pub. Oh, Mr Armfield, I thought to myself: do we have to have these actors’-exercise sorts of things? Maybe I’ve just not got over when NA wrote me out of a Sydney Uni production of Bartholomew Fair (he was tutoring in English and doing an MA in (I think) Ben Jonson at the time, though fame took him away, I think, before he ever finished it), because I didn’t come to enough rehearsals – which was, in turn, in part because I couldn’t see the point of all those exercises.

Enough of ancient grudges.

The production does manage a coup-de-theatre which I won’t spoil by revealing here.

But much is gained. Expectations have been high, and they have been met. Stuart Skelton is terrific as Grimes (more Vickers than Pears, though there is one colaratura spot in the writing which is ineluctably Pearsian), and Susan Gritton, apart from some oddly slow to speak higher soft notes, impressive as Ellen. I wished there could have been more for Peter Coleman-Wright to sing. The period setting adopted enabled Elizabeth Campbell to play Mrs Smedley as a kind of crazed Miss-Marple-wannabe, though this was more comic than threatening. The lesser parts were all strongly cast and well-delivered – the men get a better go than the women in this. I did think there was the occasional ensemble scrappiness. Mark Wigglesworth was not much inclined to let the heart-stopping moments linger.

The thing is: Grimes really is a great work, and not just in the euphemistic sense. It has wonderful moments for the orchestra, and when the chorus of borough inhabitants’ ire is raised, it has some of the loudest and most thrilling noises in the repertoire. Perhaps there are just a few twee bits: “Joe has gone fishing” makes me think of “Old Abram Brown,” and Britten managed the idea better in Billy Budd. Which is to say that a lot of the credit must go to the work. I also remember that the last production (pictured above) made a similarly strong impression on me.

The libretto is based on a poem by George Crabbe, and includes, as a non-speaking part, “Dr Crabbe.” This is the one aspect of this production that I do have misgivings about, as “Dr Crabbe” – the author within the action – assumes the role of stage manager and even eventually cradles the crazed Grimes in his madness. (The original poem is rather less sympathetic to Grimes.) I didn’t warm to this. It was fiddly and distracting, both as a source of business during the interludes for the scene changes which weren’t needed and as an authorial commentary on Grimes’s fog-harried (we had to imagine the fog, of course) confusion.

There is a lot of drinking of cups of tea in the parish hall. As a matter of design, I thought the choice of teacup was totally wrong. It should have been Beryl, as found in every English parish hall from the period and featured in Foyle’s War:

woods green beryl

In a re-run of the last first night I attended, I really am off to Shanghai tomorrow. I have made sure that I will be back just in time for the last night of the run. That’s because I expected it to be good, and, despite the little gripes above, it really is very, very good. I cried twice.

Così 3

October 6, 2009

Tonight again courtesy of my friend who is in it to Opera Australia’s Così fan Tutte.

My seat was a little further back than the last time, and it seems the attendance is improving. Then again, it may just be the loyal Tuesday subscription audience, an audience that, my taxi-driving-opera-following friend Sk maintains, is particularly devoted to the form.

On the way into the Gents at interval I said “Hullo, Peter” to PS, a longterm Quadrantine (I try not to hold that against him) and my English I tutor [31 years ago], as he was on his way out. That’s my tutor for Literature – amazing! We had another tutor for “Language”, and that is another story, but I bet they don’t have 2 tutorials a week in English I these days. PS was a bit nonplussed – I have the same problem as a former teacher occasionally greeted by ex-students/pupils, though I am sure he has more. I didn’t like to tell him that I gave the last of his novels in my possession to 2MBSFM a couple of years ago, though authors surely have to grow accustomed to this.

After interval, tiring of the constricted sound from our miserable orchestra pit, I moved to the front row. I encountered a strangely uptight neighbour, who had stowed all her (numerous) possessions on and under the empty seat. When I expressed a desire to sit in it, she asked to see my ticket! (Ironical, given that my ticket was for a considerably more expensive seat, albeit discounted. I am astounded that I nevertheless showed it to her.) I assured her that I would be able to move if the rightful owner [actually: for lawyers, licensee: the distinction has some fascinating consequences] arrived. She made some remark about not disrupting the performance if that person arrived. I was (inwardly) confident nobody would, as proved to be the case. Things were a bit frosty between us after that. I wish I could have done more to annoy her, though probably I had done enough.

There is a point, probably when you have gone to a third performance, when you risk becoming a bore about the details of a production (as opposed to about the people you sat next to). Are they details which you simply missed before, or is a little coarse acting creeping in? I thought a little finger-wagging by Fiordiligi/Rachelle Durkin on the first occasion Henry Choo assayed her breasts (a reprise of the “yes/no” moment in La ci darem da mano) fell into the latter category. In other notes: RD handled the lower-register moments (which are the very difficult and exposed parts) better than before.

The principals were trying on their microphones for size and technical difficulties in anticipation of the broadcast on ABC2 next week.

I found myself moved to tears in Ferrando’s aria where, though he feels betrayed by Dorabella, he declares he still loves her. (At least, that’s the way it goes in the present translation.) I don’t really know why.

Così 2

October 2, 2009

Concerned at news of half-full houses for Così, I gratefully accepted an offer from someone involved in the production of a company rush ticket to see it again.

At company rush prices, and given my accidental enforced holiday at home as a result of abandoning other plans in order to make my trip West, I could easily go to every remaining performance, subject to clashes.

Perhaps I will. The main thing which may deter me is the length of the piece. That seems ridiculous – surely in opera as in life, if two hours are good, then four hours (OK: 3) are better. And I have no problem or even fears of length with, say, Der Rosenkavalier, Marriage of Figaro (give me even those “extra” arias!) or Wagner. I don’t even have a memory of the same feeling about Cosi when I last saw it.

My copy of the 1969 edition of Kobbe’s Opera Guide was a present to my grandmother from a man whose late in life proposal of marriage she rejected, adhering instead to widowhood, and itself presented to him “with respect and affection from his many friends in St Albans Military Band, Cardiff” probably shortly before his embarcation to return to Australia, judging from the further inscription “Cabin 87, Promenade Deck.” There are numerous enthusiastic annotations, favouring composers who favour the brass section, and therefore Wagner most of all. The entry for Così fan Tutte is unannotated. In it, “H” [Lord Harewood] writes:

The opera ‘plays’ slower than either Figaro or Don Giovanni, and it is by no means short, but the stage action is as full of life as the music, and the opera is the ideal piece for a musically sophisticated audience.

Earlier in the same (lengthy) paragraph he writes of the opera as:

The truth is inescapable: in Così fan Tutte Mozart surpassed even himself in the richness and variety of his invention, in the impeccable skill with which the slenderest drama is adorned with music, in the creation of beauty. The idea is as light as a feather, and yet the music which clothes it suggests not only the comedy which is on the surface and which remains the most important part of the opera, but also the heartbreak which is behind the joke hat goes too far and occasionally takes a serious turn.

The paragraph as a whole extols the virtues of da Ponte’s book, particularly as effecting a symmetrical construction which “provide[s] Mozart with oppportunities for some incomparable music.” Harewood considers nineteenth century criticisms of the libretto as odd, and endorses Professor Dent’s view that the libretto “cannot be judged in a summary [in particular, I take it, a plot summary] but must be seen in all its details.”

This is probably the conventional judgment, and it has at least something behind it: that is the sense in which, as I started quoting Harewood, it is an opera for a “musically sophisticated” audience. A feature of the work is the way in which a very wide range of moods and situations (comedy, of course also the mock drama of the announcement by don Alfonso that the men are to go to war – over in a flash, jealous masculine rage; wronged womanly rage, absolute despair, military music, folksy-dancy music, evening-outdoors wind band music, schmoozy seduction and betrayal (by a man) of a woman in love) flash before you kaleidoscopically.

Well, sometimes they don’t flash but linger rather a long time at a certain poignant point. The moments where the opera seemed long were those points which felt to be lingering a bit too long – that’s circular, of course, but for me those points were most of all in Fiodiligi’s big arias. I’m not sure that RD is the ideal vocal type for this part, but then again I’m not sure that anyone is. The problem is the extremes of low and high registers – it’s hard to find anyone who can deliver both – as well as the length of arias which don’t really materially advance the in any event conspicuously contrived plot.

In this production, the singers also have to meet some quite demanding physical requirements, including topless (for the men) and in bathing costumes and later quasi-negligees (for the women). As Andrew Byrne points out (he is not keen on this) this necessarily restricts the field from which revivals can be cast.

That’s a tricky issue (let’s be honest: we are talking about fat and old singers who will be disadvantaged by this: even the tall/short pairing could be rejigged to work the other way) especially because it brings us right to the perennial issue of opera, as expressed in Capriccio, a work which I think has the same intention towards sophisticated listeners that Così has.

After all, Così was brought to the public by the same team who had already brought them Figaro and Don G. Both of those operas concentrated on men behaving badly, with exhibitions along the way of most of the range of moods I have mentioned above as being on display in Così.

Così is a sequel and a comic but in the end wry answer: You think men are like that? [And this premise is uncontested.] Women [contrary to the almost all wronged women of the previous two operas] are no better or different.

The plot is a confection of opportunities for Mozart to dip in and out of the styles by way of reprise with which his audience was already familiar.

Thinking through all of this has actually made me feel a little more forgiving of OA’s publicity department. Visually, it is clear that they have chosen to emphasise the youth and hence (to non-regular opera goers) dramatic credibility of the cast. Jim Sharman is involved: they want to reach people who might otherwise be going to the theatre.

By now, one sure fire way to bridge the divide would be to offer tickets at reduced prices which are more commensurate with theatre tickets.

Leaving that aside, I think an approach to a younger, “theatrical” audience may be too broad to be effective. But what, more specific than that, should be said?

My own attempt is clearly too lawyerly but just meant to show how hard a more specific pitch might be to formulate.

Hey! [I cringe but I’m leaving that there as the obviously fake mock-[over]familiarity of the middle aged addressing the youth.] You saw or have heard of Figaro and Don Giovanni? [Pitched too high?] They were Mozart and da Ponte’s late eighteenth century dramas about men and their sexual restlessness and aggression. Figaro is a comedy where the lustful siegneur is outwitted by his wife and his servants; Don Giovanni is a tragedy but in musically in the style of a comedy, which ends with Don Giovanni going to hell, but not before wreaking a fair bit of havoc. In Così fan tutte the same pair teamed up to write a show about the faithlessness of women. It’s kind of Sondheim territory for its time. The plot is contrived but contrived in the end to tell a wry moral. In it, Mozart packs a sample book of practically every trick he had in his book as a composer of dramatic music. This production by veteran director Jim Sharman, takes a fresh look at how the opera is, as its secondary title declares ” A school for lovers.” It’s in English. It’s technologically inventive. A young energetic and physically credible cast throw themselves into it and the audience has responded with laughter and applause.

Mind you, that’s not so different from what their own more detailed PR blurb says already.

School for lovers

September 17, 2009

A short note as, in the middle of some personal concentration of drama and upheaval, I have just been to the opening night of Così fan tutte.

It’s a new production, in contemporary garb, directed by Jim Sharman. I don’t normally get to opening nights, and even less of new productions, so I don’t know to what extent I should discount audience reaction for claque-ish elements, but even making a generous allowance for that, the production is a success and even, possibly, a hit.

There is maybe a bit much of this projected-action-filmed-live-on-stage (there is a cameraman who wanders on from time to time). I’m just guessing: is this a thing which has only recently become more technologically possible? How else to explain its repetition as a theatrical device in recent productions?

The opera itself is full of beautiful music including what seem to me to be pastiches by Mozart of himself, albeit at times superior to the originals. There is even a reprise in the production of Figaro’s denunciation of women with the houselights up. My neighbour (we were in row C) got a guernsey on the big screen.

It’s well cast. My only misgivings are about Jose Carbo’s singing as don Alfonso, which starting (I think) out of zeal for the [English, colloquially translated] words, ends up somewhere near musical theatre. I would rather his diction and hence his singing stayed a little closer to the other men’s approach, mostly for musical reasons, some of which start out from the effect of translation on the musical line.

Henry Choo gave a very impressive account of his big aria (Un’aura amorosa). Mozart tenor arias are notoriously treachorous but he really managed to fill out the long phrases. If there was a price in expenditure of vocal stamina (and there were signs of that towards the end of a long evening) it was worth paying.

The title can be translated as “Women are all like that.” (That is, in particular, fickle.) For this, the opera is said to be misogynistic. For intelligent adults, however, whatever it says about women applies to men from the opposite or complementary point of view.

Beethoven, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 5

September 1, 2009

Last Friday night to hear the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra play Schubert, music from Rosamunde and “Unfinished” Symphony, and, with Nicholas Angelich, Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.

It was the Beethoven 4 which really drew me in. It’s my favourite Beethoven [piano] concerto – if only because I am a countersuggestible type and feel compelled to go beyond the general (or at least ABC-Classic-FM-poll) favourite, No 5.

The hall was a little under half-full, by my reckoning (500-550; usual suspects observed on complimentary tickets). My neighbours told me it was about the same on the first night (when I would expect even more dignitaries and sponsors to attend).

The TSO’s approach to marketing remains puzzling – or alternatively just predictably misconceived.

For months, it was selling only the first level of the hall. Owing to the pricing policies it had adopted, this meant that the cheapest seats were $80 (A reserve) and there was otherwise a $100+ Premium reserve. I have complained about the pricing structure before. No wonder sales were slow. Eventually, the second level was opened up, though even this only brought a B reserve at $49 into play: in the very last row of the circle and in the last bays of the galleries at the side of the stage. Tellingly, the night I went, the back row and the keyboard side gallery were practically full (the non-keyboard side was relatively empty but my neighbours told me it was fuller on the first night). There is a demand for the seats at this price.

I heard the first half of the Thursday concert courtesy of the live broadcast. There is a very jaunty little skipping theme in Die Zauberharfe which is very difficult to dislodge.

As to the Friday program, it was a shame that there weren’t more to hear it. The Schubert was delightful (Rosamunde) and quite satisfactory (the symphony) and the Beethoven, well not the best I’ve heard it, but still compelling. I expect it would have been better if I’d had a more frontal piano sound (I was sitting in the opposite gallery). Serves me right for being frugal – but what can one do but lend one’s weight to the invisible hand?

The TSO has a distinctive wind section. First, because the flautists are both male – masculinity is almost a disqualification for any full-time flute playing job in Sydney (though there are two males who supplement the AOBA flute section). Secondly, because the principal oboe and clarinet both have rather old-fashioned sounds. Paradoxically, this means a thinner oboe sound, but a rounder clarinet sound than has more recently become the fashion. I wonder if the seeming convergence of sound is a trend driven by a drive for sectional blend. Still, there was nothing wrong with the famous moment (as featured in orchestration textbooks) in the “Unfinished” where the clarinet and oboe double the opening theme an octave apart.

On Saturday night, to the SOH for Fidelio.

On my way in, I overheard an intriguingly urgent conversation about paging someone between a member of the house staff and someone who had emerged from backstage.

As D is away, I had returned his seat, and my neighbour in his place, Po, told me how much he was looking forward to hearing Nicole Youl as the heroine, Leonore. She was originally a substitute for Lisa Gasteen, but had only sung one matinee, being replaced at the opening night and all other performances by Elizabeth Stannard.

Just as the curtain seemed destined to rise, OA’s General Manager, Mr Collette emerged from behind it to announce that, as she was warming up, Nicole Youl became indisposed, her understudy was in Melbourne, Anke Höppner was coming in to sing the role from the side of the stage (NY would mime and speak the dialogue) but that Anke wasn’t here yet. The curtain would go up at 8.15.

Often I am a bit skeptical about exactly how last-minute Opera Australia “emergency” indispositions are, but the overheard conversation in this case puts Mr Collette in the clear. Just as well Anke H only had to come in from Turella. At least that’s what my friend Sk told me when I rang him to kill time whilst waiting for the show to start. (The SMH says Bardwell Park: so he was pretty close.) Sk knows this sort of thing because for many years he drove a cab. On account of his operatic enthusiasm and knowledge of show finishing times, he frequently picked up at the SOH after shows. As well as conversations with individual artists, he has a rich supply of overheard conversations from OA luvvies when they travelled together in the back of his cab.

In the end, it was 8.10. Fortunately, it is a short opera.

Anke did pretty well. Given that she had no rehearsal, she did excellently. As always seems to be the case with stage-side singers, she warmed to her task as the evening went on, though probably the dramatic stuff at the end suited her better than her first big aria. She sings big which makes her voice less manoeuvrable for the curly bits.

The last time I heard Anke she was also standing in – for Cheryl Barker in The Macropoulous Secret. It’s a bit surprising and even insulting in a way that OA can’t find the occasional real role for her.

A friend whom I ran into on Monday night (who had not gone to the same performance of Fidelio as I had) was very critical of the production and more specifically its musical values and conducting in particular. He’d seen better recently, he said, on a Tuesday night in Turin. He is well-travelled. I don’t feel qualified to say anything about that because it is a great work and though there was some scrappiness, there wasn’t anything that came between me and the work. Fidelio gave Beethoven a lot of difficulty, but it really is full of a lot of very solid music, even if it starts off (after the overture) a bit like the Papageno parts of The Magic Flute. I always come out tapping the rhythm of “Retterin des Gatten sein” from the final chorus.

So far as the drama is concerned, there is one grimly funny moment which (though criticised for it) Conal Coad made even funnier. Leonora (disguised as the young man, Fidelio) is recruited by Rocco (CC) to assist him to go down to the deepest darkest cell where the unknown political prisoner (whom she suspects to be her husband, Florestan) is being starved and thirsted [OK: “thirsted” is not an actual word, but he’s on short supplies of water as well as food] to death. News has come that the minister is coming to visit the gaol and Pizzaro, the governor of the gaol, knows that if the minister finds Florestan there the game will be up. He decides that Florestan must die sooner than previously planned. He orders Rocco to dig a grave (and pays him generously for this). Rocco tells Leonore that they have to bury the prisoner. Rocco is a bit evasive about this: Leonore asks: “Is he dead?” Rocco says: “Not yet.” Leonore presses him: “So is your job to kill him?” Rocco answers, reassuringly (so he thinks), that Leonore shouldn’t be afraid: the governor himself will be coming to do that. Their job is just to dig the grave. As if that makes it all right. Rocco would never be involved in murdering anybody. (Shades of Neddy Smith, years ago: “I’m a thief, not a liar.”)

Julian Gavin as Florestan was the best I have ever heard him. And that’s not meant as some veiled insult or even faint praise: I found him quite convincing, musically and dramatically.

Perhaps I suffered from being up too close to be convinced by Peter Coleman-Wright as Pizzaro. Vocally, he is convincing, but he always seems such a nice chap and there is something about the way he moves around that made me feel that his baddiness was all a bit of a giggle. I think I first saw Robert Allman in this part, and he was really a monster. I was probably further away from the stage, and also quite possibly more readily convinced. That’s a bit of a theory I have about all remembered experience, and certainly about action on the stage. I can recall being utterly convinced as a child and teenager by dramatic depictions which I am sure, re-viewed through adult eyes, would fail to have the same impact.

Fidelio did provide an opportunity to compare the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the TSO in Beethoven. The AOBO had about 1 string player more right down the line (9/8/6/5/4, I think, though I’m working from memory by now). It is of course hampered by the pit and the demands of pit work. It would be nice to see the orchestra out on the stage more often but they hardly have the time for it. If they were, my guess is that the AOBO’s violins mightn’t measure up to the TSO’s, though if they could match them for rehearsal and preparation time (as well as time on the stage rather than the pit) maybe they would.

Catching up 2 [what?]

August 12, 2009

Last Saturday night again to Aida. Dongwon Shin (in difficulties and then indisposed when I first went) was in form as Radames and his form is pretty good.

D is away and I went with my old friend, Sq. Sq is a specialist in operas set in Egypt with nude bathing scenes, which is to say that one of the two other operas he has been to was Julius Caesar, when it was first mounted. The other, also at my urging, was Falstaff with Bryn Terfel, when he bought a standing room ticket (and suffered the next day, so he tells me).

Sq enjoyed it. I suppose that, all things being equal, he may next go to an opera in about 2018.

The previous week was busy. Pressing business at work on Monday night prevented me from going to hear and see Stephen Isselis and Dénes Varjon play Schumann for Musica Viva. Later in the week a genuinely urgent appearance before a duty judge prevented me from hearing Cédric Tiberghien playing the Bartók 2 with the SSO and Simone Young, not to mention the the orchestra play Brahms Haydn variations. At least (arriving just before interval) I heard the Strauss (Ein Heldenleben) which oddly enough gave me courage for the impending struggle (to which the truly urgent application related). Dene Olding wore his groovy thick-framed glasses. Ms Young led a rather brisk performance, or so it seemed to me. At times it verged on the scrappy, though some of that could easily be put down to programatticism (is this a word?) and even an element of quite admirable recklessness. Maybe I could have done with a few more dumplings and a bit less diet Coke.

On Tuesday (ie, last night by now) to the opening night of Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi, based on the same story as R&J. This really ought to be the subject of another post, if I can get around to it. My neighbour for the night told me she is coming to 5 operas this year, and that she has never forgiven Graeme Murphy for Turandot (“If I saw just one more Mexican wave!…”). Obviously, she didn’t choose Aida as one of her five. It just goes to show how long opera-goers can keep a grudge going. Aldo di Toro was indisposed and Henry Choo stood in (apparently he also sang at the final dress) as Tebaldo more than competently.

During the opening chorus [correction:] overture, as a means of showing the bitterness and entrenched nature of the feud, the production featured a lad (blond, of course) who with the encouragement of his elders executed a blindfold captive from the opposing family/faction. There was quite a big build up to this and it looked as though it was going to be a shocking moment. This was averted when the shot fired came through the PA rather than by a good old-fashioned stage blank. There were probably OH&S issues at stake here: not simply about the noise and the boy’s hearing, but also the psychological effect on him were the play-acting too realistic. I don’t remember such squeamishness about gunfire onstage in school dramatics in my youth, but then our stagecraft was probably never at a risk of psychologically damaging realism of any sort.

On a disquieting note, I got the distinct impression that the orchestra was being “discreetly” (as they always say) amplified. It seemed to go away for the first scene after interval (which included a spectacular clarinet obbligato by Catherine McCorkill, who has been playing quite a lot with the orchestra this year) but returned with the chorus in the next scene. On the Saturday at Aida the occasional reverberative ring after short sharp big tutti also made me wonder if something similar was going on. There is word that Fidelio also saw some experiments in this direction, though of the vocalists rather than the orchestra. I know everything needs to be tried to ameliorate the wretchedly enclosed pit, but amplification seems a desperate remedy. Tell me it isn’t so!

Luxury life

July 19, 2009

Last Saturday to hear the SSO with Victoria Mullova and Donald Runnicles, Brahms violin concerto and Strauss Symphonia Domestica.  I’ve really left it too late to be able to say anything either accurate or intelligent about this occasion. VM and DR both made a good impression.

During the week, an interlude of uncharacteristic luxury (there is a gfc, you know).

On Wednesday, to Aida.  D is going away before our otherwise scheduled date so I found him a seat earlier in the season (supplies were limited) and on the day picked up a (for me) marginal seat on the end of row M in the stalls. I was told this was the last seat.  Judging from the state of the house, that was possibly true, at least of the seats which were to be sold.

It is directed by Graeme Murphy. I know why they brought him in. They thought: spectacle! colour and movement! Turandot! Graeme Murphy!

I’ve always had mixed feelings about GM’s production of Turandot.   I have mixed feelings also about Aida.  Both require spectacle and pomp which are difficult to achieve on the Opera Theatre stage .  They require it because in each opera the spectacle, principally of the might of the state (or in Turandot, the oriental despot by his princess), is the counterpoise to the love drama and the force against which the love heroes struggle.

Because this Aida is an Opera Conference production, Murphy has also had to conceive it to fit the capabilities of the least of the theatres to which those productions may tour.  I wonder if this in some way at a level of sheer technical necessity lies behind his use of the “travelator” at the front of the stage rather than, for example, a revolve stage.  Quite frankly, it’s not an easy brief.

I share some of Sarah‘s reservations about the pomp and grandeur scenes.  They’re inventively done but the invention involves an element of ingenuity which at the same time leaves everything looking at times a bit like a parody of grand opera at its slightly shabby clunkiest.  The last act was better but I expect that even at the grandest opera houses it always is, because it is inherent in the design of the work.

Dongwon Shin, our Radames, was clearly struggling (though quite well) with vocal indisposition.  He’s obviously a good singer – you could tell that from how nevertheless he managed to nail the last high note in Celeste Aida. I don’t blame him from bailing out at the second interval.  He had to be able to come back and sing the role again. His replacement (whose exact name, I, like others, did not catch) did his best and quite well in the circumstances. I am next going on 8 August, so whether I hear DS on that occasion depends on what Opera Australia means by saying that he is Radames “until 8 August” and that otherwise it is (without time qualification) Rosario La Spina.

It’s clear that the public wants to see Aida. It’s odd then that it isn’t done more frequently in Australia.

Perhaps it really is because it is difficult to do. As I’ve said, there was lots that was ingenious about the production; Claire Rutter Tamara Wilson sang Aida at a level which in Sydney we certainly cannot complain about, though Michael Lewis’s appearance as Amonasro definitely raised the stakes so far as witnessing someone really at home in the style and knowing what to do with it.

Anyway, I’m going to see it again, and I hope next time to be more moved by it – I have certainly been more moved by this opera than I was on Wednesday, when the overall effect was mildly dispiriting – however much, of course, it remained a great work. D gave it two-and-a-half stars.

On Thursday, a further night of luxury (even at two and a half stars, Aida remains incontrovertibly a luxury) with the first night of Manon Lescaut. This is Puccini’s first big hit. It’s a bit of an odd opera because, spanning the action of a novel, it relies on you to join the dots between the episodes shown on the stage.

The production was cast pretty much at Opera Australia’s top level. If I hadn’t already gone on at more than adequate length about Aida I might try to say why the result in ML was reassuringly satisfactory in the way that Aida was not: I suspect a lot of it came down to a production which attempted comfortably and securely something which it actually could achieve.

The performance was also billed as being dedicated to the memory of former Australian Opera musical director, Edward Downes, and there were leaflets to that effect on the armrests. I thought it might have been possible for something to have been said at the end of the performance. I don’t know exactly how it filtered through the musical folk-memory-sphere to me but the message I’ve always had is that Downes was very “well-respected” (the quotes because that was the actual phrase which instantly came to mind and I have also seen something like it in print) for what he achieved when in Sydney in the early seventies. I suspect this was transmitted with a certain emphasis because of the decided lack of respect he was shown when the time came to welcome Richard Bonynge back with Joan Sutherland.

Wanderer writes eloquently of the first Australian season of Jenufa, which we owe to Downes. This I also saw, albeit at a more tender and differently impressionable age. The ticket was my collateral gain from the divorce of some friends of my parents, which goes to show that there are few clouds which do not have a silver lining for someone.

On holiday

July 7, 2009


D and I have made a country jaunt. We didn’t manage to get away until almost 2pm on Saturday, so only ended up getting as far as Maitland that night, though we then drove into Newcastle to catch the night life, or at least to have dinner out.

On Sunday we drove as far as we could into the Gloucester Tops (via Dungog) and stayed the night at Gloucester. On Monday we returned to Sydney via Seal Rocks and Raymond Terrace. I can’t say that Raymond Terrace lives up in any way to its prominence on destination signs and maps.

Pictured above, D’s first experience negotiating a ford. Pictured below: the sideways view from the passenger window of another ford.


A propos recent critical commentary on Opera Australia’s Acis & Galatea, I don’t accept that the pastoral should be abandoned or worked against in a production just because modern opera-goers are unlikely to be able to throw a sheep.