Ten days is a long time in opera land. This time last Thursday we were on the open road, en route to The Nation's Capital for Voices in the Forest, an outdoor concert at Canberra's new National Arboretum which also featured Amelia Farrugia and Sumi Jo. We arrived, drove in a circle for a while – on purpose, because Canberra's designed that way – found our hotel, which was straight from Foyle's War, checked in, unpacked and then it was time for some strenuous lounging about on my part and some slightly more strenuous rehearsing for the tenor in my life. No rest for the wicked; they were straight into it and didn't stop till 10pm. Australians, you'll sympathise with our plight, obliged to find somebody serving food in Canberra late on a weeknight. Thank the opera gods for the hotel directly behind ours, who provided not merely food, but pork belly.
Day Two began with a morning rehearsal (I didn't partake) then a late morning phone interview and then a few hours' respite – for respite, read cricket on TV – before rehearsals all evening. It was a long programme, with substantial contributions from all three singers, and a few party pieces making their débuts. So sure enough, another rehearsal the next morning. I can't deny a twinge or three of guilt at my relative sloth; my exertions had more or less been limited to a sun scorched walk to Parliament House. Touristic duty done, surely, but hardly a comparable achievement to Puccini at 10am.
Showtime rolled up soon enough and we set off to the Arboretum, which is tucked away in a deep basin amid many hills and winding roads. The trees are in their early infancy, so the "forest" exists more in one's imagination than actuality, but the setting does lend itself nicely to outdoor performance – it's a natural amphitheatre – and as the festivities had begun early in the afternoon, a crowd of something like 4000 had already arrayed itself against the hill as we pulled up behind the stage.
One hour, several strawberries and two helpful ushers later, we'd negotiated a seat for me and the show swung into action. Marguerite, Musetta, Lauretta and their sisters from Amelia – who even had the kids laughing along with "Mein Herr Marquis" – and some tenor hits from you-know-who, including a lot of things I've never had the chance to hear him sing before. I love Parsifal and Peter Grimes to death, but I can't deny it was a treat to have Cavaradossi's company for a moment, and I don't think you needed to be me to swoon at "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz". Sumi Jo made her grand appearance in the second half and they loved her, too, both in the acrobatics of her solo numbers and a few lighthearted soprano/tenor duets. And if I had to hear "Time To Say Goodbye", this was probably the way to do it.
By 9.30pm it was all over – standing ovation included – and within an hour we were, believe it or not, back in the car and back on the road to Sydney. A 2pm rehearsal for The Queen of Spades in Ultimo meant staying overnight, or even for the post-show buffet, was out of the question. So we drove. Almost into a kangaroo at one point – thank goodness for sharp tenorial reflexes – and deliberately into a handy truckstop for pies and caffeine. We were home by 1am.
Russian immersion followed. In fact it had punctuated the Canberra trip anyway, but now it took over as Sydney Symphony rehearsals got into full swing. I, of course, can claim no active part in all of this hard work; but it seems worth chronicling, and might, I hope, be of interest to opera fans curious for a glimpse at the mechanics behind the magic. So while I was enjoying a week of sunshine, old friends and already knowing how the public transport works in Sydney, our hero was spending his afternoons and evenings in the Sydney Opera House, with Maestro (and pixie) Ashkenazy and a cast of fantastic Russians and Australians, slaving over 290 pages of Cyrillic, phonetic transcription and fabulous Tchaikovsky melancholy.
They were long nights. Rehearsals couldn't begin until late afternoon, so didn't end until late in the evening, and while a late start theoretically should mean a chance to sleep in, empty mornings have a way of filling up fast in this world. Meetings and interviews and so on and so on. Not that we'd complain for a second; there are far worse ways to be frantic. It's been lovely, too, to be in Sydney long enough for once to carry out good intentions of catching up with people – I've seen almost everybody I hoped to, and talked myself out of voice more than once. So much gossip, so little time.
Thursday was the general rehearsal. Friday, a day off, meaning more cricket on TV. And last night, Saturday, it all came together in one big, blazing concert. The Queen of Spades is a large scale opera in almost every respect and I daresay hard enough to pull off in a staged production, let alone in concert. But they did it. Huge kudos to the Sydney Symphony for assembling such a uniformly strong cast, and for balancing Russian imports with homegrown talent. José Carbo, Deborah Humble and Angus Wood were all in fine form, along with several impressive young singers like Amy Corkery, Victoria Lambourn and Tabatha McFadyen.
As for the principal cast, well, it could hardly have been bettered. Irina Tchistjakova was the Countess – imperious, intimidating and with a voice of almost otherworldly depth – and Andrei Bondarenko, young as he is, embodied Yeletsky with similar panache, and melted every heart in the place with his aria. Dina Kuznetsova was all tragic sweetness as Lisa with a silvery voice to match – completely my kind of soprano – and as for Hermann, let's just say it was an auspicious role début. It's a monster of a role but he sailed through as usual, and the warmth of the response from both audience (another standing ovation) and colleagues was unmistakeable.
Which brings us to Sunday. Another day off and – you guessed it – even more cricket. And car racing. On Monday, they do it all again, possibly even better than before. I'll let you know.