No, don't worry, I'm not going to start ranting about the interval exodus again. People left. It happens. I can't make them stay, and quite frankly, if they're so determined to leave then maybe I'd rather not share my opera with them anyway. It's just that it's such a shame. They missed out on something wonderful — wonderful enough that if they'd just forced themselves to stay, some of them might actually have found their minds changing. Or am I too optimistic? I mean, lots of people left Alcina and while I regretted their decision, I have to concede that if one act full of da capo arias wears you out, another two probably won't help the situation.
Lady Macbeth is different. Because I think that even if you found the entire first half completely immoral and disgusting and unwatchable, you would be hard pressed to make exactly the same claim of the rest. The woman one seat away from me muttered and tsked and complained throughout the first two acts. So at interval she and her companion abandoned their (expensive — I only get to sit there when I have press tickets) seats and went home. And so that's her lasting impression, I guess, and she'll never know what happened later. She'll never know about Katerina's quiet, tragic resignation, about her final monologues which are as pared back and lyrical as it gets and a million miles from what she was so quick to dismiss as "grotesque" and "just silly".
But anyway. I can't keep harping on about this. I'll do my best to see another performance: the same thing will probably happen and I will just have to learn to sigh and bear it. Let's move on.
I'm very new to Lady Macbeth, which might partly explain my determination to defend it from these perceived slights. It's one of those operas I always meant to acquaint myself and never did, until I had the incentive of this upcoming production — so for that, I thank Richard Hickox profusely. He brought it here in 2002 and it was he who put it in this year's season. It's terribly sad that he wasn't here with it when it finally arrived. I think he was in everybody's minds on opening night. For someone like me, whose only relationship with him was audience member to conductor, it's when I sit in that theatre and he's not in the pit that I really realise he's gone, and how strange that is. But he left us some treasures, and this Lady Macbeth is one of them.
Sir Richard Armstrong is one of the conductors who has stepped into the breach and filled the spots left absent by Hickox. He's taken over this Lady M and the Radiance concert (now packaged as a tribute to the late maestro) as well as his scheduled Aida duties. I'm very pleased that he has. The performance he led on opening night was one of the finest I've heard from the AOBO. Big, bold and exciting, but rich with detail too. Transparent and intricate but not precious — when it needed to be LOUD, it was LOUD. I liked having the brass banda up in the top loges. I can imagine there are seats from which that placement would be a less than pleasant decision, but from where I was sitting, the effect was brilliant. For once I could forget the well known evils of the opera theatre pit, they hardly seemed relevant. Maybe he's up for the top job and maybe he isn't, but I'll be happy to see this Sir Richard back in our corner of the world any time he pleases. [He's won the Janacek medal. Katya?]
The casting of Susan Bullock as Katerina was Richard Hickox's doing too. I don't suppose she's who the naysayers had in mind when they complained about his British imports, though. Nobody could complain about Susan Bullock as Katerina — any opera company would be fortunate to have her in the role, and here we are, witnessing what I believe is her role début. She's excellent. It's wonderful to hear such a big, powerful, beautiful voice filling up that theatre, and even more wonderful to find that she can scale it right back and be just as beautiful — she takes as much care over the small stuff and the quiet stuff as over the huge stuff. For all the waves and waves of gorgeous soprano sound she sent my way, what's really stayed with me is her final scenes, softly sung, some of it almost parlando, so simple and stark and so perfect. Her stamina, too, is impressive: she seems to have as much voice at the end as at the beginning, and in such a massive role, that's something.
Simon O'Neill gets points from me straight away just for being my compatriot. The last time I heard Simon was also the first — a radio broadcast of Verdi arias and duets with a few other New Zealand singers. I've always remembered Simon and Patricia Wright singing the love duet from Otello and he's been on my list ever since as somebody I'd like to hear live. Well, I finally have, and he did not disappoint. There's a reason this man was covering Placido Domingo as Siegmund at the Met. A real deal heldentenor, with ringing, secure tone. He sang brilliantly. Dramatically he's a bit less convincing. He has physical stature for the role, and he's good at being big and brutish, but he's a bit on the wooden side — when he's called upon to move (in his sex scene with Katerina, or when he's flogged) he looks rather awkward. One can imagine the girls being impressed with the sheer bulk of him, but when Aksinya claims he's a great seducer, well, it's a little hard to believe. But not impossible — there are far worse actors in the OA stable, and he's exciting to hear, so I'll be happy to see him back some time.
Then there's the appalling family into which Katerina has married. David Corcoran is Zinovy, which is by far his largest role with the company proper so far, although he was of course Oz Opera's Pinkerton last year. He's more than equal to the challenge, quite at home among seasoned professionals despite his Young Artist status. His voice retains all the promise of that Pinkerton last year, focused and secure and distinctive. I hope the company will treat him sensibly. Tenors, as we know, are in short supply, and we ought to see plenty more of David; but at the same time, the last thing we need is for one of the few exciting tenors we have to be pushed too far, too soon.
John Wegner, Australia's Voice For Evil, is Boris. I'm sure there must be a few nice guys hidden away in his repertoire somewhere, but for now I am quite happy to partake of John Wegner, Supervillain. He does it so well. I can still see his ghoulish Claggart, and his Boris, while far less sophistiqué, is just as horribly memorable. There's a certain elegance to John's singing which occasionally lends Boris a hint of nobility which he really doesn't deserve, but mostly he's just oily and nasty and absolutely superb. Even at his foulest moments, he's magnetic. He watches Katerina and Sergei. We watch him. We want to look away and can't. Fabulous.
We come to the point where I ought to just take a very deep breath and deal with all the supporting cast in one fell swoop but that might be hard. There are a lot of them. As hinted in my earlier notes, I give first honours to the fabulous Jacqueline Dark. She sings wonderfully — that goes without saying by now — and she handles Aksinya's horrific rape scene with such courage and such total commitment. It was a scene which made me want to just hide in a corner and have a bit of a cry (I feel the same way writing about it) and all I had to do was watch. She was actually doing it, and she was magnificent and completely devastating. My other favourites were Jud Arthur as the old convict and Dominica Matthews as Sonyetka — Dominica's voice just seems to be getting lovelier and more interesting with every role she sings, and the way that dusky contralto of hers just flows in this music is quite marvellous. Warwick Fyfe does an excellent job as the bumbling, comical Chief of Police — properly funny and at the same time quite unsettling, since we know what's coming. But I wasn't so fond of Kanen Breen as the other comic character, the Shabby Peasant: a bit too slapstick for my tastes. I realise there's a place for slapstick in this opera, but it just seemed to me that Kanen's mugging and exaggerated stumbling made it impossible for him to show genuine horror when he found the corpse; and he tended to be swamped by the orchestra. Gennadi Dubinsky was strange but sort of appealing as the Priest, singing an English translation of a Russian libretto with what I assume is his own thick Russian accent and looking rather Rasputinish, which is always a good thing.
As to the rest, well, I'd be lying if I tried to comment on each of them individually. All the usual suspects of the male ensemble are in there — Shane Lowrencev, David Thelander, the Richards Alexander and Anderson, Charlie Kedmenec and so on. Everybody sings very well indeed, but what impressed me was more the conglomerative effect of them all than individual performances. I think that's actually to their credit. Every bit player fit seamlessly into the whole and helped to create this brutal, cold, frightening slice of life.
And so it is. Brutal and cold and frightening. And utterly wonderful. It's that fabulous paradox you sometimes get in an opera like this one: soul-crushing and yet so beautifully realised that there's something heartening about the experience, too. That's what I wanted from this opera, and it's what I got. There's no fuss, no showing off, no fussy cleverness. The direction is straightforward, the singing strong, direct and passionate, Armstrong's conducting perceptive and dynamic. Nobody's trying to press their own personal or artistic agenda with this. They're just letting the opera be its extraordinary self, and it works. There are only three performances left. If you're in Sydney and you haven't booked, I think you probably should.