I am not falling into my old habits, traipsing across countries or oceans at the drop of a hat in mad pursuit of Australian sopranos. I'd have been happy with my five Sydney Arabellas but since the opportunity of a sixth in Melbourne was offered, I was of course delighted by the prospect. There is no such thing as too much Cheryl Barker. Nor, for that matter, is there such a thing as too much Arabella — at least not this Arabella. John Cox's production is just as endearingly elegant in either setting. The principal cast is thankfully unchanged, which has meant double duty for a couple of the singers — Milijana Nikolic and Lorina Gore sang Adelaide and Fiakermilli respectively on Friday night, then Ulrica and Oscar the following afternoon, a feat for which I most definitely doff my non-existent hat.
The performance I saw was the last of the run. It seems my timing was just right — as I understand it, Peter Coleman-Wright was announced on opening night as singing through a chest infection and subsequently cancelled the next three performances. His cover was Warwick Fyfe, and I concede that, while Warwick's far from a favourite of mine, I can actually see him making quite an effective Mandryka — but the dizzying chemistry of Cheryl and Peter could not, I think, be recreated with half the partnership missing. And since that electricity is one of my favourite aspects of this Arabella, I'm very grateful indeed that Peter was back in health and on stage, as buoyant and teddybearish as ever.
Cheryl Barker was exquisite because she is always exquisite, because being exquisite is what being Cheryl Barker means. No change there, except in the details — no two of her Arabellas have been exactly the same, she is a living, breathing character whom Cheryl creates afresh with each performance. As ever — in Arabella and elsewhere — her voice grew warmer, more expansive, more secure and more enthralling as the evening progressed. She has nailed this role; I hope for the world's sake she's given opportunities to sing it elsewhere.
Failing that, let's just keep her singing it here forever. I'd happily let her lissome, spine-shivering singing keep right on sending me a little further round the bend with every phrase. By the time she says, with perfect coquetry "die drei sind lustiger" I'm already half gone, and at that point we've barely begun. I don't need to point out the aching beauty of the duet with Zdenka; if you don't feel it, then you've a heart of stone which no amount of pointing out could fix. Her "Mein Elemer" is a quicksilver tour de force. "Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein", well, I've already waxed lyrical about this — Peter and Cheryl in duet radiate true love, vocally and physically, with a sincerity almost too potent to bear. She handles the Act Three confrontation with clarity, passion and towering dignity, a commanding presence and yet delicate, lovable and so, so, so beautiful. From opening night in Sydney to closing night in Melbourne, all this has been true of Cheryl throughout; but then, that's just what she does. She's Cheryl. (I'm mad about her. Is it obvious?)
Production, cast, consuming gorgeousness of Cheryl, all this was unchanged. One thing, however, was very, very different in Melbourne — the choice of tempi. I heard Lionel Friend conduct the opera once here in Sydney, when Richard Hickox was home with a virus. There, he was a proxy Hickox. In Melbourne, he is his own man and his conception of this opera is markedly different. This was fast. Sometimes pleasingly so; sometimes not. In parts, Friend's lightning dash did a nice job of draining off a bit of excess syrup (though I don't find this opera as saccharine as some do) and there were times his zippy recitatives did aid the pacing of the piece. All in all, though, he was too fast for me. A good portion of the glow of Arabella emanates from its ecstatic dwelling on gorgeous melodies, and I think it's okay to allow to just sit and radiate for a little while, no need to keep pressing on and on. Not that he denied us all luxury, not at all — but nevertheless I couldn't help but feel a certain impatience simmering beneath even the most drawn out passages.
The other issue with this fast forwarded Arabella — more obvious to me because I had the performances under Hickox for comparison — was its detrimental effect on the staging. Everything was happening faster, which meant that the carefully measured stage business which seemed so well matched to Hickox's performances, now appeared rougher and more rushed. There was a moment when Zdenka had to blurt a final line more or less over her shoulder, just to get off the stage in time. Arabella re-entered the room while the door was still swinging shut behind Matteo. I think Theodor was singing about his bills before even looking at them. And the depictive Act Three prelude turned from fervent to chaotic; evidently Hickox and Friend have very different visions of Zdenka's First Time. The change of pace, while awkward, isn't ever vastly problematic, and if, like a sane person, you've only seen the production in one city or t'other, I don't suppose it's a problem at all. Having seen it at both speeds, though, I can say I absolutely prefer the slower version, both musically and theatrically. Still, I'm pleased to have heard both, as there was much to love in Friend's reading and in the fluid, fabulous playing of Orchestra Victoria, ably assisted by a far kinder acoustic than that of the Opera Theatre.
And it seems I was not the only blogger making the Sydney-Melbourne Arabella road trip. Marcellous was there too, and his post makes more detailed mention of the brisker tempi — apparently Friend's reading of the score took about fifteen minutes off Hickox's time, which seems a pretty significant difference. Marcellous attended the same performance I did, which does make me wonder if he might perchance be the distinctively dressed gentleman whom I often see at concerts and opera here and whom I also happened to spot filing into the State Theatre on Friday night. But no, I suppose that kind of coincidence only happens in opera, not in real life.