Recital in the Music Workshop of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Macquarie Street, Sydney
Sunday, 25th November 2012
Claire Primrose – Dramatic Soprano
Associate Artist – Diana Weston, Piano
Henri Duparc (1848 – 1933)
Le Manoir de Rosamonde
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)
Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981)
William Bolcom (1938 – )
Black Max (as told by the Kooning Boys)
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
Fünf Gedichte fur eine Frauenstimme
Stehe Still !
During a brief return to Australia to catch up with family and friends in Sydney, this concert was originally intended to be a family affair for her extended family and Australian friends. With the help of Inara Molinari and Ondine Productions, the recital went to the next level, by being transferred to the Music Workshop of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and inviting members of the Public. Thank Heavens it did. To miss the artistry and magnificent voice of Ms Primrose during her stay in Sydney would have been criminal !
The inspired program took us on a journey through all the many facets of love and loss – the loss of a lover, the death of family and humorous cabaret style songs about the ‘loss’ of a one-night stand ! Starting with an exquisite and stylish performance of a selection of chansons of Duparc, the program took it up a notch with some Richard Strauss lieder. With a subtle adjustment of her voice she performed this bracket with a characteristic Straussian tone. Three cabaret style songs of Barber and Bolcom followed which required an altogether change in style which was accomplished brilliantly with great acting, a totally accurate cabaret style and a great sense of humour with the material. Ms Primrose years living in New York really paid off in these three songs.
After a brief off-stage ‘tune-up’ of the voice in another studio, the audience was treated to Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. These were truly magnificent, both vocally and in their interpretation. Here is a true Wagnerian dramatic soprano at the peak of her powers. The voice is huge with a glorious ringing top which she can extend down into her middle voice, and also her extend her considerable chest voice into her middle as well – all seamlessly with no break, and to thrilling effect ! No wobble, strain or woolliness heard here. This voice is liquid gold. No wonder a a critic compared her to the late Birgit Nilsson following her recent concert in Manilla.
As if the magnificent voice and musical style was not enough, Ms Primrose also has the extraordinary ability to perform her music with incredible emotion, drama and acting ability. The mind boggles at the thought of her performing roles such as Elektra and Brunhilde.
Sympathetic accompaniment of very difficult music was provided by Diana Weston.
This recital was one of my great musical treats of the last few years, and I have no doubt was also for the many members of the large audience that attended it.
As an aside, yet again there was no one from Opera Australia there to witness this extraordinary Australian singer’s World class talents.
RODELINDA, REGINA DE’LONGOBARDI
Opera Seria in 3 Acts by George Frideric Handel
Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym
First Production commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music and first performed in the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London on the 13th February 1725.
Concert performance by The Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation on Saturday, 20th October 2012 in the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney.
With the Sydney Lyric Orchestra.
Conductor Richard Bonynge
Rodelinda Valda Wilson
Bertarido Fiona Janes
Grimoaldo John Longmuir
Eduige Liane Keegan
Unulfo Lorina Gore
Garibaldo Michael Lewis
Love was certainly in the air for the long anticipated concert performance for this, one of the great masterpieces of Handel, and the welcome return to the concert stage of living National treasure, Richard Bonynge. A packed City Recital Hall graced by the presence of the Governor -General of Australia, Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, The Governor of NSW, Her Excellency Prof Marie Bashir, the Premier of NSW, The Honorable Mr Barry O’Farrell, numerous great Australian singers both past and present, and an enthusiastic throng of passionate lovers of great singing bristled with excitement proving that love and passion for bel canto singing is alive and well in Sydney. Indeed, only a kilometre away another great bel canto work – LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR was playing in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.
Richard Bonynge had assembled an extraordinary cast of the greatest possible Australian singers for this performance and it certainly showed in performance. Leading the charge in the title role was Valda Wilson, who looked like a Greek goddess and sang equally divinely. Although not a classical coloratura soprano, you would never have known it with the excellent running of the voice and trilling she displayed. Richard Bonynge was at pains to reign in the voices and allow the beauty of tone to shine through in the superb acoustics of this hall, but when Valda occasionally opened up the voice she displayed a voice of considerable power and equal tonal beauty. This was a truly stunning performance and one that will stay in the mind of audience members for a long time.
Photo: Valda Wilson
Fiona Janes as Bertarido, now one of Australia’s finest dramatic mezzos, showed no loss of facility in her demanding coloratura passages and thrilled both with her dramatic arias and also the most heart-rending ones, leaving many audience members (including myself) profoundly moved. Her loss from the performance stage following her fine performance of Adalgisa in Norma with the late Elizabeth Connell remains unforgivable.
Liane Keegan, last heard in Australia as Erda in the Adelaide Ring is truly a force of nature ! Her true and rare contralto voice made mince meat of the coloratura passages and thrilled with interpolated low F’s which probably made even Lauris Elms (present in the audience) sit up at attention and even the ghost of Dame Clara Butt.
John Longmuir, a tenor in the Moffatt Oxenbould Young Artists Studio with Opera Australia sang the role of Grimoaldo (who thinks up these names) with striking beauty of tone, and without the use of a score. He had certainly done his homework and it showed.
Lorina Gore contributed many fine moments of glorious singing and Michael Lewis, fronting up that evening after singing Sharpless in a performance of MADAMA BUTTERFLY that afternoon for Opera Australia showed there is no limits to his talents, singing Handel superbly for the first time in my memory.
What a cast, and what extraordinary singing – all sung with heart-felt emotion. This performance was music making at the highest level, and a masterclass in vocal technique.
Richard Bonynge was in his element and conducted a truly magical performance with some fine playing from the Sydney Lyric Orchestra.
Lets hope this is the first of an annual event for the Sydney opera calendar, and continues to make money for the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation to help sponsor promising young artists for further study and training overseas. It certainly paid off Valda Wilson, a previous grant recipient.
How sad that such bel canto works are rarely heard with the National opera company these days, and some of the great Australian artists in this performance are also not heard with them. The only member of the administrative team of Opera Australia at the performance was Associate Musical Director, Anthony Legge, who left the performance after the interval.
Thanks to the generosity of ARBON PUBLISHING Pty Ltd and the companys’ Managing Director, Fritz Gubler and Business Development Manager, Brad Chong I am thrilled to announce a SPECIAL OFFER to readers of the Opera Insider.
The new Australian book, GREAT, GRAND and FAMOUS OPERA HOUSES, which will normally retail for $79.95 when it is launched in the book stores on the 26th October, will be available at a special pre order price of $59.95 +Gst including delivery within Australia using the code OPERAINSIDER up until the 26th October from the ARBON PUBLISHING website here. Once you have clicked to purchase the book, and you have added the book to the cart, a little pop-up box appears, press checkout and an option to put in a promotional code appears. Then type in the code OPERAINSIDER in capitals.
After the 26th October, you can still use the code but the price would be $64.95 + GST including delivery with Australia.
The Opera Insider has already received a pre-launch copy of the book. I am bowled over by the marvellous artwork, historical information and interesting anecdotes on a huge range of splendid opera houses from every side of the globe. It really is a MUST have book for any opera lover. Apart from luscious photos of the opera houses, articles include details, illustrations and information on backstage facilities, famous productions, famous singers and World premiere productions for most of the opera houses. Additional chapters on opera singers, opera festivals, impresarios, the cult of the conductor, leading lights, opera houses in World War II, acoustics and famous modern stagings are also included.
Here are some examples of the art work from the book illustrating some of the splendid opera houses that are discussed:
The Operahuset, Oslo
The Palau de les Arts, Reina Sofia
Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
The Marc Chagall designed ceiling for the Palais Garnier in Paris
Don’t forget to order your copy now at the specially discounted rate !!
Grand opera in 5 Acts by Guiseppe Verdi
Original French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Mery, based on the dramatic play, DON CARLOS, INFANT VON SPANIEN by Friedrich Schiller (1787).
First Production commissioned by the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra ( Paris Opera) and premiered at the company’s theatre, the Salle Le Peletier, on 11th March 1867.
Performance by Houston Grand Opera on Sunday, 22nd April 2012 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center Houston, Texas.
A co-production with the Welsh National Opera and Canadian Opera Company.
Conductor Patrick Summers
Director John Caird
Scenery Designer Johan Engels
Costume Designer Carl Friedrich Oberle
Lighting Designer Nigel Levings
Choreography Denni Sayers
Chorus Master Richard Bado
Don Carlos Brandon Jovanovich
Elizabeth de Valois Tamara Wilson
Princess Eboli Christine Goerke
Rodrigue Scott Hendricks
Phillipe II Andrea Silvestrelli
Le Grand Inquisitor Samuel Ramey
Spirit of Charles V Oren Gradus
Thibault Lauren Snouffer
A Celestial voice Brittany Wheeler
Le Comte de Lerma Boris Dyakov
Forrester Mark Diamond
DON CARLOS is the 25th of the 29 operas composed by Verdi, and his third fully blown, French grand opera composed for the Paris Opera. Verdi had toyed with the idea of setting Schiller’s play, ‘Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien’ twenty years earlier in 1850. The idea had not left his mind when he visited the Spanish royal palace – the Escurial in 1863. Commissioned by the Paris Opera, the initial work on the libretto was commenced by Joseph Mery, and completed by Camille du Locle, the son-in-law of the the General Manager of the Paris Opera. Most of the work on the opera was done in 1866 but due to a conflict between Italy and Austria the work was interrupted. Verdi in fact asked to be released from the contract but was refused and the premier was scheduled for the autumn of 1866. However, the opera was not premiered until March 11, 1867 due to various obstacles, including a strike and illness. In its original form it was an elaborate spectacle featuring a ballet, huge crowd scenes, and twice as much music as LA TRAVIATA. When the rehearsal period at the Grand Opera was coming to a close in February of 1867, Verdi had to make extensive cuts because of the length of the opera. Some of the scenes that were cut, included a long Prelude and Introduction to Act 1, part of the Philip-Posa duet in Act 2, and both the Elisabeth-Eboli and the Carlos-Philip duets in Act 4.
The historical milieu at the time of composition and the operas premier saw the Italian States still fighting for unification, the war with Austria over the Venetian States had failed, but Austria – which had been defeated by Italy’s ally Prussia, was forced to give up the Venetian States to France (which eventually gave them to Italy). Only 2 years earlier in 1864 France had agreed to the withdrawal of the troops of Napoleon III from Rome if the Papal States were preserved, and arguments continued in both France and Italy concerning the temporal power of the Catholic Church and the fate of Rome. Is it no wonder that Verdi was attracted to an opera pitting the characters against forces of Church and State, and freedom or suppression in the midst of a family melodrama ? Indeed these conflicts are as relevant today as they were for Verdi in the 19th century.
Houston Grand Opera has bravely staged the original DON CARLOS almost as originally envisaged by Verdi. Back were the opening chorus for the foresters and their wives in the Fontainebeau Scene, the duet for Elisabeth and Eboli in Act 4, Scene 1, the duet for Carlos and the King after the death of Posa in Act 4, Scene 2, an exchange between Elisabeth and Eboli during the insurrection in the same scene and several other previously cut sections. The ballet “La Pérégrina” was not performed. The production was originally staged for the opening of the Wales Millennium Centre. Interestingly Australian director Neil Armfield had originally been engaged to direct the production with designers Brian Thompson, Carl Friedrich Oberle and Nigel Levings, but Armfield was forced to drop out 5 months prior to the opening due to a health scare. John Caird, an experienced stage and musical director who had never directed an opera, but had recently staged the Schiller play Don Carlos was approached, and became the director of this production.
Caird and his new set designer, Johan Engels have produced a staging that constantly reminds the audience of the influence of the Church. With a fixed set consisting of black walls, tiers of black steps on three sides, individual scenes were promptly altered by additional elements either being flown in, or the black, back wall up stage opening, to reveal new design elements. The forest in the Fontainebleu scene consisted of a forest of gigantic crucifixes amidst swirling fog, the chorus entered for the Auto-da-fe all baring red crucifixes in their hands which were later stood on the stairs around the stage for Phillipe II’s room. The stage action moved well and characters were well delineated by an exceptional cast of singing actors. With the gigantic stage of the Brown Theatre the chorus of 72 with 8 extras had difficulty in filling the set particularly for the Auto-de-fe scene. The heretics were burnt on a pile of crucifixes atop a wagon down stage centre, and the unusual finale saw Don Carlos eye cut out prior to being killed.
Musically the production was in the exceptional hands of Houston Grand Opera Music and Artistic Director, Patrick Summers.Together with the exceptional Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus the performance was a stunning musical treat of probably Verdi’s darkest and edgiest score. The chorus work in particular was exceptional and extremely precise. Their sound was very bright and open rather than the warmer, fuller sound usually experienced in Australia and Europe.
The title role was delivered in robust style by American tenor, Brandon Jovanovich. Here is a voice to watch ! With good looks, stage smarts, and a voice capable of so many colours his was a stunning performance and justified the staging of this opera (well Don Carlos is the title role !). Jonas Kauffman better watch out, because the US is nurturing their home grown version. Tamara Wilson, who was a stunning Aida in Sydney a few years ago, has developed beautifully since then. Her voice is even more secure and focused, her beautiful golden tone even more luscious, and her dramatic abilities have also considerably developed. Again here is a true star in the making. Her singing in the final scene was electrifying.
Mr Summers opted for a soprano Eboli with Christine Goerke. She is a true force of nature with a big dramatic voice and bottom notes that many a mezzo would die for. Coupled with her highly dramatic instincts this was an electrifying performance from start to finish.
Samuel Ramey, who had just turned 70 years of age was singing his last operatic performance as the Grand Inquisitor. Although the voice had a prominent wobble on this occasion, it took nothing from his musical and sinister performance of the role. His performance was an abject lesson in the use of stillness to achieve dramatic tension. Less successful were Scott Hendricks as Rodrigue and Andrea Silvestrelli as Phillipe II. Hendricks singing was a little inconsistent and seemed not quite in the same league as Wilson, Goerke, and Jovanovich. While Silvestrelli, who possesses an enormous voice suffered from an excessive vibrato. Smaller roles were well sung, particularly Boris Dyakov as the Comte de Lerma.
Well, was the full version worth hearing ? – a most emphatically yes. There was not a dull moment or wasted section of music in the score presented, and the performance seemed to pass far too soon. This was a striking and musically vivid performance of one of Verdi’s great masterpieces that deserves to be heard much more frequently in its original French without the cuts.
Tragic opera in 2 Acts by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Guiseppe Bardari and the composer, based on the dramatic play, MARIA STUART by Friedrich Schiller (1800).
Performance by Houston Grand Opera on Saturday, 21st April 2012 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center Houston, Texas.
Sets and costumes from Minnesota Opera.
Conductor Patrick Summers
Director Kevin Newbury
Scenery Designer Neil Patel
Costume Designer Jessica Jahn
Lighting Designer D M Wood
Chorus Master Richard Bado
Mary Stuart Joyce DiDonato
Elizabeth I Katie van Kooten
Earl of Leicester Eric Cutler
Talbot Robert Gleadow
Cecil Oren Gradus
Anna Catherine Martin
MARIA STUARDA is the third of Donizetti’s 4 tudor operas, following IL CASTELLO DI KENILWORTH and ANNA BOLENA. ROBERO DEVERAUX is the 4th. The opera’s chequered career includes a libretto by the 17 year old Guiseppe Bardari, censorship problems, and a poor reception resulting in the opera being ignored for almost one hundred years until a production in Bergamo (Donizetti’s home town) in 1958, and the discovery of an autographed score in Sweden in the 1980s.
The opera had already been passed by the Neapolitan censor prior to the first dress rehearsal which was attended by the King of Naples. In the confrontation scene between the two Queens (an historically incorrect addition to Schiller’s play and the opera) occurred during the rehearsal, the soprano singing Maria Stuarda sang “vil bastarda” (vile bastard) to Elizabeth I and was slapped across the face by the soprano singing that role, resulting in an unladylike scuffle. The King subsequently banned the opera. Probably the fact his wife, Queen Maria Christine was a descendant of Maria Stuarda also played a part in his decision. Donizetti engaged Pietro Salatino to write a new libretto and revised the score. The “new” opera was named BUONDELMONTE after a character in Dante’s Paradiso, and received an unsuccessful premiere in October 1834. It was subsequently withdrawn by Donizetti.
MARIA STUARDA finally received its first performance at La Scala, Milan on the 30th December 1835 with the legendary sfogato soprano, Maria Malibran, as Maria Stuarda. Malibran ignored the censoring revisions, including the substitution of “donna vile” for the previously troublesome “vil bastarda” and the Milanese censor banned further performances. A London premiere was planned, but the project was cancelled with the death of Malibran at the age of 28 years in 1836.
Since the operas resurrection in the 1980′s, the work has almost become a member of the standard repertoire.
This production of MARIA STUARDA originated at the Minnesota Opera in 2011. The production is quietly understated, with a huge, gilded, coffered ceiling suspended at an angle over the playing space from which various architectural features descend through the ceiling, such as large rectangular columns and curved frescoed walls. Elizabeth and Mary appeared as children during the prelude and were reunited again as children following Mary’s decapitation. Apart from an occasional table and a throne, additional properties were minimal. Elizabeth I made her initial entrance on a mobile pulpit from which she addressed her Court, and Mary entered on a mobile set of high metal stairs which was wheeled around the stage. Costumes were traditional and faithful to the period. The effect was simple, effective and minimalistic, enabling the singers to do just what they do best – to sing and develop the characters they are portraying.
All eyes and ears were on mezzo soprano, Joyce DiDonato making her debut in the title role. Miss Donato is a darling of the Houston audience after being a member of the Young Artists Program at Houston Grand Opera and singing 16 roles in previous productions – all to great acclaim. Her assumption of the role provided some exciting singing and acting, but to my ears sounded a little unusual being sung by a mezzo, and coloratura work was not as deliciously precise as is usually heard in her performances of Rossini and Handel works. Perhaps the role had not sung into her voice yet. Despite these quibbles the performance was dramatic and involving. Highlights were the confrontation scene with Elizabeth I (the ‘vil bastards’ was in) and the sublime prayer with chorus in the final scene of act II.
Katie van Kooten, a recent graduate of the Jet Young Artists Program at the Royal Opera Covent Garden sang Elizabeth I. She possesses a creamy soprano which she has previously been put to great use as Helena and Ellen Orford in the Neil Armfield productions of Britten’s A MIDSUMMER”S NIGHTS DREAM and PETER GRIMES for Houston Grand Opera. Loooking every inch the part, she delivered an vivid portrayal of this historical figure with great passion, a luscious voice, and florid singing, but again with some lack of the truly great coloratura fireworks expected. Eric Cutler, a fine tenor who specialises in the bel canto tenor roles sang fluidly with a beautiful tonal quality and dramatic engagement. His character was well defined and provided a good pivot for the secondary (albeit historically incorrect) conflict of the opera – the emotional triangle between the Earl of Leicester and both Queens. The voices of Robert Galdow as Talbot and Oren Gradus as Cecil made fine contributions. Current Houston Grand Opera Young Artists member Catherine Martin made a stand out contribution in the small role of Anna.
The excellent and finely schooled Houston Grand Opera Chorus made an exciting and exacting contribution to the opera, as did the excellent Houston Grand Opera Orchestra all controlled with the usual expertise and passion of Maestro Patrick Summers in the pit.
The final scene of the opera varied from the Minnesota staging with the dramatic lowering of the suspended coffered ceiling during the execution of Maria Stuarda.
This was a great night with stellar singing in the superb Brown Theater of the Wortham Centre, with an enthusiastic audience that gave the production and cast a rousing and well deserved standing ovation, and also convinced me of the worth and great musical treasures found in this Donizetti work.
LOVE NEVER DIES
Musical in 2 Acts by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, and additional Lyrics by Charles Hart
Performance by The Really Useful Company Asia Pacific and Arts Capital Trust on Friday, 24th March 2012 at The Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Musical Director Guy Simpson
Director Simon Phillis
Scenery Designer Gabriella Tylesova
Costume Designer Gabriella Tylesova
Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper
Choreography Graeme Murphy
Sound Designer Mick Potter
The Phantom Ben Lewis
Christine Daae Anna O’Byrne
Madam Giry Maria Mercedes
Raoul Simon Gleeson
Meg Giry Sharon Millerchip
Fleck Emma Hawkins
Squelch Paul Tabone
Gangle Dean Vince
Gustave George Cartwright, or Tyrone Geany, or Beau Woodbridge
I must admit that until recently I have never been a great fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. They have always struck me as being one hit works, unlike the great musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Lowe that produced literally strings of hit songs from each of their major works. This opinion started to change with Webber’s SUNSET BOULEVARDE . Drawn to the subject of the musical based on the great film of the same name, I bought the CD of the complete work as soon as it hit the music store stands. Similarly, I downloaded the complete LOVE NEVER DIES as soon as it was released and prior to it’s unfortunate West End production which was initially panned by many London critics. The notion of developing the Phantom’s story interested me greatly, and the idea of his reappearance at Coney Island seemed a marvellous setting for another instalment, and all that such a setting could offer theatrically.More interestingly this piece appeared to have a lot more than one hit tune !
It seems that it has taken several re-writes, judicious cuts, moving of several musical numbers and the assembly of an enormously talented production team in the colonies to realise the full potential of Webber’s new work. The production team above reads like a who’s who of Australian theatrical genius, and the production they have dreamed up and staged is sumptuous, extravagant, bold and pure theatre magic.
Initially opening in the Regent Theatre, Melbourne last year, the production is being staged in the Capitol Theatre Sydney for a mere 12 weeks. I suspect the brief run is due to a lack of theatre stock in Sydney and the queue of waiting productions for Sydney, rather than insufficient box office. Although I did not attend the production in Melbourne, numerous production stills suggest that the physical production and sets fits better in the Sydney venue than the Melbourne theatre.
The massive set is predominated by huge pieces of roller coaster track (the infamous Cyclone of Coney Island) running around the internal stage and also projecting out into the theatre on two huge towers on the side of the stage and in front of the proscenium. Sections of track can be elevated down from outside the proscenium to produce a catwalk in front of the stage at various heights. Within this construction and the thousand of lights that outline the roller coaster in the distance at the back of the stage, various roll on sets for rooms, ship docks, and the Phantoms Eyrie are breezed on stage to great theatrical effect. In fact great theatrical effect is a gross understatement, as the sets and staging is the most spectacular and brilliant staging of any theatrical work I have ever seen.
The musical has apart from the operatic theme of the story line, several features in common with opera. Apart from some spoken interjections by chorus members at the dock when Christine Daae arrives in New York with Raoul (now her husband of 10 years) and their son Gustave, the piece is completely written through. Recitative like motive blend seamlessly with melodic songs, duets, large set pieces and even a splendid quartet (‘Dear old friends’ featuring Madam Giry, Meg Giry, Raoul and Christine). The series of extended duets one after the other, in the Hotel scene between the Phantom and Christine featuring beautiful melody after another with various moods and rhythms is very reminiscent of the grand duets used by Meyerbeer in his grand operas (perhaps Webber’s nod to the origin of the singers at the Paris Opera). The highly theatrical production is probably reminiscent of the over the top stagings of grand opera in the early half of the nineteenth century in Paris. Certainly this style of production magic is what modern opera has to deliver for some works if it wants to reclaim audiences from other forms of modern musical theatre.
The great set pieces of the Phantom’s opening ‘Til I hear you sing” and Christine’s ‘aria’ - ‘Love never dies’ are great and memorable tunes, as our the quartet, Christine and Gustaves’ duet ‘Look with your Heart’, Raoul’s Act II opening song ‘Why does she love me’ , Raoul and the Phantom’s duet ‘Devil Take the hindmost’ as well as the mesmerising Coney Island Waltz. Webber pulls put all the pushes for a through back to his JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR rock roots with the Finale to Act I – ‘The beauty underneath”. The musical is a rich trove of rich musical styles and great and memorable tunes.
In the starring role of the Phantom, young Australian baritone Ben Lewis totally hits the mark. With a a rich baritone voice that easily encompasses the high tessitura of the role he looks, acts and sounds the just as magnificent as Anthony Warlow in the original Australian PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and better than Ramin Karimloo from the London cast and original recording. Spookily he looked remarkably like his father, the great Australian baritone Michael Lewis even with his mask in place.
The very young and stunningly attractive Anna O’Byrne also is ideal for the role of Christine Daae. She has a stunning light soprano used to considerable advantage, although she had some difficulty with the upper tessitura of the title song on the night after a long run and matinee earlier on the day. She still brought the house down with the number.
Maria Mercedes and Sharon Millerchip as Madame and Meg Giry was certainly casting for strength and both were terrific in the roles. Simon Gleeson as Christine’s husband Raoul was outstanding in a role difficult to like. The young boy performing on the night reviewed was excellent with good stage presence and a fine soprano voice.
The availability of Australian Emma J Hawkins, a short statured performer with a “bag of tricks bigger than herself” allowed the director to alter the role of Fleck from a dancer to a short statured performer. And what a creation this proved to be. Emma sang and danced up a storm and was a welcome addition to the very edgy trio of circus performers – Fleck, Squelck and Gangle. Paul Tabone (with a glorious tenor voice) and Dean Vince – both extremely versatile and seasoned performers completed the cast.
The final, tragic and deeply moving scene of the piece was played out on a cat work lowered over the orchestra pit.
My impression is that this work, so often the butt of comments by well meaning reviewers over the years since its creation claiming the lyrics, story and music are poor, are quite misguided. I found it a marvellous piece of theatre, with great music and totally engaging dramatically. Australia has proved yet again that it really knows how to mount these works with strong casts the equal if not better than in London or New York.
I walked out of the theatre with a tear in the eye, a spring in my step, and humming at least half a dozen memorable tunes – what more can you ask for ?
IN THE PENAL COLONY
An Opera by Philip Glass
Libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer Based on the original story by Franz Kafka.
Performance by Sydney Chamber Opera on Monday, 9th April 2012, at the Parade Playhouse, Parade Theatres, Kensington in Sydney.
Conductor Huw Belling
Director Imara Savage
Designer Michael Hankin
Lighting Designer Verity Hampson
The Visitor Pascal Herrington
The Officer Paul Goodwin-Groen
The Condemned Man Anthony Hunt
The Guard Patrick George
and the Chamber Ensemble
This is sadly said to be the first performance of an opera by Phillip Glass in Sydney.
Philip Glass first came to international attention in 1976 with EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH, the ground-breaking music theatre work he created with artist Robert Wilson. This was premiered in Avignon in France and within a year had found its way to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The success of Einstein came at a time when Glass had already been working for a number of years in the world of theatre, writing incidental music for plays and other works. Even today, after composing ten symphonies, eleven concertos, five string quartets, and numerous other pieces which defy genre, Glass continues first and foremost to describe himself as a ‘theatre composer.’
Immediately after Einstein, Glass was approached by the director of the Netherlands Opera, Hans de Roo, to “write him a real opera.” By this, de Roo meant an opera for orchestra and acoustic voices intended for the regular forces of a standard repertory opera house. Glass responded with the second of his ‘portrait’ operas – SATYAGRAHA, a word meaning “truth-force.” Satyagraha is about Gandhi’s years in South Africa where he developed the most potent of his ideas about peaceful resistance. In 2008, when the opera was revived at the Metropolitan Opera, New York Glass said “I wrote this opera in 1979 in reaction to what I thought was an extremely violent world. I had no idea that 30 years later it would be much more violent.” This theme of violence in society is again explored most graphically in his 2000 chamber opera IN THE PENAL COLONY based on Kafka’s novella of the same name.
Musically, Glass is a minimalist composer, a style of music associated with the work of American composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Glass, characterised by periods of silence, long pulsating drone-like phrases, continuities requiring slow modulation of one or more parameters, and re-iteration of musical ideas such as phrases figures, motives or cells. Consonant harmony is also a feature. Starting in the early 1960s as an underground scene in San Francisco alternative spaces and New York lofts, minimalism spread to become the most popular experimental music style of the late 20th century. In Europe, the music of Michael Nyman, Henryk Gorecki and Arvo Part exhibit minimalist features.
Lately with growth in his musical style, Glass has distanced himself from the “minimalist” label, describing himself instead as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.” Currently, he describes himself as a “Classicist”!
IN THE PENAL COLONY concerns a Condemned Man who is about to be executed. The procedure is expected to be efficient, quiet and anonymous. But torture is a messy business, and not everything goes according to plan.His executioner is an Officer who regards the old way of doing things as the correct way, the only way. The new Commander of the penal colony has requested that the execution be witnessed by a Visitor. The Officer describes the execution machine to the Visitor, detailing its conception, its construction and finally its method. The method of execution is the most horrific and inhumane imaginable. The Officer’s zealous dedication to this method is based on his belief that the machine has the power to bring about a moment of transfiguration in the victim, the moment they understand the crime they have committed and see the error of their ways. As he awaits his execution, the Condemned Man knows nothing of either his conviction or his punishment.
The Visitor is increasingly appalled by what he sees, but seems incapable of intervening. At what point does the silence of the visitor become immoral? When does non-intervention become a crime? When the Officer realises that his beliefs will no longer be accepted, there is only one course left. The real horror of the machine is now revealed.
Rising Australian stars, director Imara Savage and designer Michael Hankin have come up with a novel concept for this emotionally disturbing opera, placing the action in a series of long, horizontal, bland white rooms. The stage area is completely boxed in with a black wall with a very long letter box opening revealing the playing area – a shallow stark white room with white vertical drapes along the back wall, a door on the right hand side wall and a water cooler in the left hand corner. The chamber ensemble consisting of a sting quintet with 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass playing out of view behind the stage. All this allows The Viewer to focus specifically on the drama and words. Surtitles were projected on the black wall above the letter box opening, but these were not needed due to the precise singing of the two singers and the excellent acoustics of the Parade Playhouse.
The opera has only two singers – The Visitor and The Officer. The Condemned Man and The Guard are actors and utter not a sound. Pascal Herrington, a tenor with wide experience currently studying for the Advanced Diploma of Opera at the Sydney Conservatorium, sang the role of the Visitor with great aplomb. His fine lyric voice easily negotiated the difficult vocal lines. He was able to convincingly colour his voice to suit the scene and mood, and clearly delineated the horror and conflict of his situation. He was similarly at ease with his acting and movement.
The other major role, The Officer, was sung by Paul Goodwin-Groen, an experienced bass who has a Masters in Theatre/Acting from Brandeis University in Boston, and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, the Britten-Pears School and the Ezio Pinza Foundation in Italy. He has a fine bass voice with a vibrant, rich tone and was a considerable asset to the work. However, his acting was unfortunately wooden and he lacked an ability to act with his voice, leaving the pivotal role of the obsessed and sadistic Officer a little bland, diminishing the dramatic reach of this marvellous work. In a work from the standard repertoire this would not be an issue, but this work really demands the very best of a singing actor to realise its full potential.
Anthony Hunt playing The Condemned Man was simply terrific. Wheeled into the room in a wheelchair with medical restraints attached, he produced an entirely believable Prisoner in ill health, beaten down and mentally crushed with a minimum of movement and striking composure.
The final major role in the work is the horrific and unseen Machine. The programmable instrument of prolonged torture that etches the human body with the list of their crimes and messages, then gift raps the lot with a decorative border over a period of 12 hours ! The Machine makes its first impression musically during the brief prelude before the prologue. As The Officer explains in horrific detail the history, design, construction and workings of The Machine, his lecture is illustrated by a video displayed on a remote controlled video screen that plays through most of the opera. The video, in glorious monochrome, features archival footage of various factories, machinery manufacture, working machine parts then finally human organs as the opera reaches it’s terrifying climax. When The Condemned Man is removed to be taken to the machine, the vertical drape is slowly moved partially to the side to reveal an identical room behind the first. The machine remains hidden behind the section of vertical drapes not moved aside. The horror of the machine is all in the mind of The Viewer watching the performance. In the final scene The Officer realises magnificent glory of The Machine, all his work and the legacy of the previous Commander all count for naught. He decides that it is a waste to use it on The Condemned Man and submits himself to its actions. As the machine breaks down and ends his torture prematurely, a gush of blue fluid is sprayed over the glass wall between the observation and torture rooms and over the observing Condemned Man who remains motionless and emotionless. I am not sure whether the blue liquid was supposed to be blood or ink from the machine – but my dramatic senses tell me that blood would have been much more effective as well as some sound effects for The Machine.
The Chamber Ensemble, made up of young string instrumentalists made a remarkable contribution to the work. Sound balance between the singers and string quintet was surprisingly in favour of the strings, which seemed unusual with them placed behind the set and stage. Glass’ long phrases pulsed and throbbed, rising and falling with various subtle rhythmic changes producing an amazing escalating tension in the piece. This subtlety was not always obtained by the group proving Glass is not as easy to play and deliver as its simplicity suggests. With such a small ensemble, any individual glitches stick out like a thumb, and some minor intonation problems, lack of rhythmic cohesion, lack of dynamic variation were minor problems. Some scratchiness in the string playing may have been intentional for musical drama. Despite these minor quibbles, the string quintet gave us an excellent impression of Glass’ fantastic musical world.
IN THE PENAL COLONY proved to be yet another phenomenal success for the relatively new, edgy and vibrant Sydney Chamber Opera. Long may they flourish and deliver such fascinating and challenging works as this. The notion of Glass composing an opera based on a Kafka story is a marriage made in heaven. Glass’ music adds an incredible spell-binding dimension and tension to the Kafka story, which was well served by this production.
The Artistic Director of Sydney Chamber Opera, Louis Garrick has stated ”The question of whether to intervene or not to intervene is so important to world politics today – look at Iraq and there are many more examples of that in international relations and when you overlay that with the themes of execution and torture its very relevant to today.”
Indeed so !
Last nights performance at the Parade Playhouse was relatively full. Don’t miss out on this extraordinary work and production. 3 Performances are left on the 11th, 13th and 14th April.
Opera in 4 Acts by Guiseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, after the play LA DAME AUX CAMELIAS by Alexandre Dumas fils (1852)
Performance by Opera Australia on Friday, 30th March 2012 at Lady Macquarie’s Chair on Sydney Harbour.
Conductor Brian Castles-Onion
Director Francesca Zambello
Scenery Designer Brian Thompson
Costume Designer Tess Schofield
Lighting Designer John Rayment
Choreography Stephen Baynes
Sound Designer Tony David Cray
Site Designer Ross Wallace
Producer/Assistant Director Michael Campbell
Second Assistant Director Matthew Barclay
Violetta Emma Matthews
Alfredo Gianluca Terranova
Pere Germont Jonathan Summers
Flora Margaret Plummer
Gastone Martin Buckingham
Baron Douphol James Clayton
Marquis d’Obigny Christopher Hillier
Doctor Grenvil John Bolton Wood
Annina Sarah Sweeting
Violetta’s servant Samuel Sakker
Messanger Tom Hamilton
COSI FAN TUTTE
Opera in 2 Acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Performance by Opera Australia on Saturday, 17th March 2012 in the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House.
Conductor Benjamin Northey
Director Jim Sharman
Scenery Designer Ralph Myers
Costume Designer Gabriela Tylesova
Lighting Designer Damien Cooper
Choreography Joshua Consandine
Assistant Director Kip Williams
Fortepiano continuo Kate Golla
Ferrando Stephen Smith
Guglielmo Samuel Dundas
Don Alfonso Richard Anderson
Fiordiligi Sharon Prero
Dorabella Sian Pendry
Despina Lorina Gore
After a three year rest, the Jim Sharman production of Mozart and da Pontes’ third and final opera returned to the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House to conclude the Summer Season works. It suffers from being the last of three Mozart productions (2 of them modern updatings with the same set designer) in this season, and audience fatigue of Mozart was evident. The upper loges were empty and a substantial number of premium seats in the stalls were also empty. Again the opera was sung in English.
The Sharman production frames the production within a modern wedding celebration, where the marrying couple, an Australian man and a Japanese bride seat themselves on the sides of the stage projecting around the orchestra pit and watch, and occasionally involve themselves in the unfolding shenanigans of some of their wedding guests – the unmarried couples of the opera.
The production is framed in a solitary white set with a rolling a high flowing ramp descending from the back of the stage reminiscent perhaps of the sand descending to the water at Bondi Beach (a frequent haunt for Japanese weddings) and angled side walls leaning to the right hand side of the stage. After a while the effect of the slightly leaning walls produces an illusion of the stage being tilted to the side which I found unsettling. Opening with the trio of men concluding their workout in a gym while dressing in the change room and discussing the love life of Ferrando and Guglielmo works well, as did the following scene with their lovers in swim wear. The men march of to war in army camouflage fatigues, later they are resuscitated by Despina with a device resembling a dildo, stylised period costumes are used for the chorus in the garden scene and the wedding banquet table is a long platform flown in from the fly tower on which Despina does a sassy strip and fan dance for her Act II aria, “Una Donna”. Thankfully, the restudied production omitted much of the previously intrusive use of a cameraman on stage filming the action. Much of the stage action was very active, physically demanding, and at times almost busy, producing a fast paced and extremely comedic production. There were some memorable stage pictures, particularly for the chorus for the Act II evening garden scene.
Musically the performances were in the more than competent hands of the young Australia conductor, Benjamin Northey who delivered a sparkling account of the score. Sian Pendry was the only original member of the cast. She has grown considerably in this role, and also in size of her voice since the productions last outing. Lorina Gore, an experienced member of the company, made a delightfully sung and acted Despina. Somehow the complete package of vivacity, manipulation of events and humour was unfortunately not as well delineated in the production – though no fault of Ms Gore. The rest of the cast consisted of young and less experienced singers who did an absolutely sterling job both vocally and dramatically, only lacking more experience, further development, and a better production to be entirely successful. Ensembles were all well sung pattering along with excellent precision and colour amidst the fast paced and extremely physical action.
Richard Anderson surprised as a resonant and well sing and acted Don Alfonso. This singer now seems to be finally making his mark in the company after an excellent performance of Tereus in Richard Mill’s opera THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE in 2011, and now Don Alfonso. Similarly Sam Dundas as Guglielmo. Previous roles though well sung, have been wooden. Not so in this role which was sung and performed with verve. Indeed he has even deserved a rating on the barihunks site ( http://barihunks.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/shirtless-samuel-dundas-heats-up-cosi.html ) !
Stephen Smith also continues to improve in this, his largest main stage role to date. His well sung Ferrando, particularly in the ensembles, was matched by an ease of acting. His upper range needs a little more work for his aria “Un aura amorosa” which required some effort and loss of the liquid tone required above the stave in this difficult number.
In the vocally demanding role of Fiordiligi, Sharon Prero sang with precision but the voice initially was marred by a steely tone. She settled in time delivering a well sung “Come scoglio”, albeit lacking the fine tonal quality present in some of the best exponents of the role seen on this stage over the years, such as Joan Carden, Yvonne Kenny and Amanda Thane. The production was well supported by a small chorus and the excellent of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.
Although containing some entertaining scenes and some fine singing, this production is the least successful of the three Mozart operas presented in this Summer Season. Despite the valiant attempts of the experienced and ingenious director Jim Sharman (surely a living National treasure), and a young, vibrant group of promising singers this seemed a long evening in the theatre. Unfortunately the singing and staging never realised the lofty heights that this Mozart work surely requires. The casting would be quite acceptable for a regional opera company, but not for our National company. The administration of Opera Australia has not only let the singers down by not supporting them with more experienced singers mixed into the cast for this opera, and also the new MAGIC FLUTE, but more importantly they have let their audience down. Opera Australia cannot expect it’s audience to grow when they deliver works not cast to knock the socks of the audience. A shame that there were more vacant seats after the interval.
THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
Opera in 2 Acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Performance by Opera Australia on Saturday, 18th February 2012 in the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House.
Conductor Simon Hewitt
Director Benedict Andrews
Scenery Designer Ralph Myers
Costume Designer Alice Babidge
Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper
Choreography Lucy Guerin
Assistant Conductor Anthony Legge
Assistant Director Tama Matheson
Susanna Taryn Fiebig
Figaro Joshua Bloom
Marcellina Jacqueline Dark
Dr Bartolo Conal Coad
Cherubino Dominica Matthews
Count Almaviva Michael Lewis
Don Basilio Kanen Breen
Countess Almaviva Elvira Fatykhova
Antonio Clifford Plumpton
Don Curzio Graeme Macfarlane
Barbarina Jessica Dean
Bridesmaid Sharon Olde
Bridesmaid Vanessa Lewis
I must admit considerable worries and trepidation when Opera Australia announced a few years ago, a new, updated production by Benedict Andrews to be set in a modern day, gated community. Oh, here we go again I thought, thinking back to the disastrous Tim Albery production and the surprisingly flawed Neil Armfield production in recent years. Fortunately - or unfortunately the sublime John Copley production that I grew up with still haunts my subconscious. Without a doubt the Copley production was one of the best, if not the best production ever staged by the National company. High praise indeed, and I am sure I am not the only one to think this.
The feeling was similar to going to see the replacement LA BOHEME for the much loved Tom Lingwood designed production dating from 1970, that had been treasured and loved for over 20 years. How could they ! What – a new BOHEME to be directed by an unheard of team straight out of NIDA ? The anger oozed from my pores entering the Opera Theatre that night – to be transformed to gulping tears at the end of the first act in the new Baz Luhrman BOHEME. So it was to be with this MARRIAGE OF FIGARO – the fear and trepidation of some regietheatre miss-mash made way for admiration, love, laughs and tears in this fantastic new production.
Andrews partners in theatre magic were his designers, Ralph Myers and Alice Babidge. The sets consisted of a series of blank white rooms of normal ceiling height, using less than half the proscenium height, and with minimal furnishings. This focused attention clearly on the action and characters. Side walls slid sideways across the stage from right to left revealing each new room – a delicious device I have not seen before. During the overture, a not inconsiderable number of house maids arrived in street wear and proceeded to chat, undress and get into their uniforms a delightful egg shell blue.
Figaro is dressed in the same security guard uniform as the other guards who man the doors to the rooms, the Count in dark suit with crisp, white shirt, Rosina Bartolo and Basilio in casual dress. Bartolo hilariously enters pushing a wheeled walker fitted with an oxygen tank and wearing an oxygen mask from which he gasps air during his aria ‘La vendetta’ ! Cherubino hides in a cleaning trolley rather than behind a chair, and the Count hides by diving into a Whirlpool washing machine ! The second act revealed a stunning white bedroom for the Countess with a picture window with sheer, white curtains consuming the entire back wall and a view inside the nefarious closet and an anteroom on each side of the stage. The Countess was gowned in an exquisite white dress. The Count returned at the end of the second act in hunting gear and attendants dragged in a full deer body with which Basilio ‘wrestled’ during the finale. All fantastically funny stuff.But the pathos and tender moments were there too. Act three was set in the ubiquitous white room – clearly a function room with dressed tables, champagne flutes and balloons on the tables ready for the wedding reception. The final act set in the garden consisted of a bare stage raining large, multi coloured confetti during the entire act representing the storm – a homage to the Benedict trademark signature.
Benedict produced a lively romp thoroughly faithful to the libretto and the intentions of da Ponte and Mozart. All the gags, tender moments, moments of introspection and pathos were all there and fitted so easily into this modern take of this masterpiece. Some comments have been made by audience members concerning the flagrant allusions to sex in the staging. In the 18th Century this opera was modern, cutting edge, biting and highly sexual for it’s day. Benedict has faithfully added this edge again to the work that has been lost during the work’s history. To those audience members who have criticised the sexiness I have only one word (coined by my grandfather in an editorial he wrote for The Truth over 100 years ago) – Wowsers !
Opera Australia has mounted a tremendous cast for this work. Michael Lewis was a controversial choice because of his age. The count is usually played by a younger man, but in this production he is so right with the notion of a slightly older businessman with the younger wife. It works well, and when has anyone heard the role so beautifully sung with a voice usually singing Verdi baritone roles ! Similarly one would go a LONG way to hear the Countess so delectably sung as it was by Elvira Fatykhova. With rich honeyed tone, evenly produced through her entire range, looking ravishing and acting the role with aplomb, she was Mozart’s Countess. My memory is emblazoned with the original Countess (Rosemary Gordon) in the Copley production entering the act three hall in a glorious gold, bejewelled Mantua gown bathed in the golden light of dusk to sing ‘I remember’ (Dove sono). This memory is now supplanted with the Benedict/Myers production and Fatykhova’s glorious singing of this aria. This is yet another great success for her to add to her Manon and Violetta for Opera Australia and Lucia for Opera Queensland.
Joshua Bloom was a very handsome Figaro who sang the role beautifully. Although the role was extremely well characterised, his Figaro was more of a slightly awkward schemer than the wily plotter and manipulator typical of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE and usually FIGARO. The Countess and Susannah were more obviously the arch manipulators in this production.
Taryn Fiebig and Domenica Matthews were both stunning vocally and dramatically as Susannah and Cherubino. Even more so than in the Armfeld production.
Conal Coad, Jacqueline Dark and Kanen Breen would successfully grace any stage in the World in their character roles – all beautifully sung, and deliciously naughty. Ms Dark now rates with Rosina Raisbeck and Heather Begg as a great interpreter of Marcellina (no small feat). Kanen Breen would have been superb for the occasionally performed ’Asses coat’ aria in the fourth act, but it’s inclusion would have wrecked the dramatic continuity in this production. I have not seen a FIGARO where the fourth act was so well paced and didn’t appear to be drawn out. All of the smaller roles were well cast and sung, and also well characterised. The small and expert chorus contributed considerably to the occasion.
The opera was sung in English. A controversial decision. The hoary old argument for opera in English is as old as the argument over the importance of words or music. There will never be any winners for either. I cut my operatic teeth listening to the old Copley production in English (no one complained then) and got to know every twist and nuance in the libretto, as current audiences will. The modernity of this production (and trends to attracting new and younger audiences) makes the performance in English a good choice, and I have no doubt it WILL attract new opera goers who make the effort to go and see it. However, THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO was never written to be performed in the vernacular. It was written by a German speaking Austrian Composer specifically in Italian, which was the current operatic fad. The music is intrinsically linked to Italian vowels and phrasing and can never be beaten in Italian. The recitatives, and patter arias in particularly roll out and trip off the tongue so delectably, it is a shame not to experience them. Perhaps the answer is get them hooked on the work in English first, and perform the work in the original Italian at subsequent outings.
In the pit, the opera was in the very safe and expert hands of young Australian conductor, Simon Hewitt, in a brightly paced rendition with true Mozartian style. His mood was obviously infectious spreading to the cast and also the ever reliable Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra which played the score vividly and with suitable refinement.
I still love the Copley production, but this MARRIAGE OF FIGARO is a perfect example of what great and modern productions of opera are all about, and can proudly stand up in comparison. No dusty traditionalism or regietheatre here, just superb opera, superb music and superb theatre. Don’t miss it, but leave your wowser maiden aunt at home – she won’t get it.